Blind Spot: The Beloved Disciple and the Authorship of John


This Blind Spot will indeed be a companion piece of sorts with the last piece on the Man in the Iron Mask, for again we will be examining a historically unidentified person, someone whose identity has been much debated, with assorted likely suspects having been put forward by scholars. But additionally it will serve as a clarification of sorts to a statement I made more than once in my series on the Priory of Sion and Rennes-le-Château. In that series, I suggested that Mary Magdalene was considered a “beloved disciple.” In truth, there is a figure who only appears in the Gospel of John who is known by that moniker and is described in every appearance as “the disciple whom Jesus loved,” but is never overtly identified by name. The notion that Mary Magdalene was the beloved disciple is a common and an intriguing one, but it is by no means widely accepted. For one thing, a key passage in the Gospel of John featuring the Beloved Disciple appears to indicate that they are two different people: Mary Magdalene sees the stone has been rolled away from Christ’s tomb and goes to tell Simon Peter and the Beloved disciple, who then race to the tomb and enter. But those in the Magdelene camp feel the text itself cannot be relied upon, pointing out there appears to have been a campaign to besmirch the reputation of the Magdalene, portraying her as a prostitute when there is no evidence for this present in the Gospels. They suggest that her name may have been redacted, calling her instead “the disciple whom Jesus loved” so as not to admit Jesus’s relationship with her. You may recall this theory in Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, which makes much of the fact that apocryphal texts, such as the Gospel of Mary, mention how much Jesus loved her. Now some believe this text actually refers to his mother Mary, but there are further mentions in the Gnostic texts of the Nag Hammadi, for example the Gospel of Phillip, that indicate Christ’s love for Mary Magdalene more specifically, and how he loved her more than the other disciples and would “kiss her often on her mouth.” But contrary to what Brown claims in his novel, these texts are not the oldest known sources of information on the subject; rather they have been shown to be far less reliable as they are centuries older than the canonical gospels, being composed hundreds of years later even than John, which at around 120 CE was written at the greatest historical distance from the events it describes. So let us consider further the evidence in the Gospel of John as well as the most widely held theories on the Beloved Disciple’s identity in order to reach a fuller understanding.

Holy Women at Christ's Tomb by Annibale Carracci c. 1590s, via  Wikimedia Commons

Holy Women at Christ's Tomb by Annibale Carracci c. 1590s, via Wikimedia Commons


There are actually a number of places in the Gospel of John in which an unnamed disciple appears. Although not explicitly identified as the disciple whom Jesus loved, many still take these as further appearances of the Beloved Disciple. The first is in Chapter 1, verse 35, which mentions two disciples of John the Baptist who become the disciples of Jesus. If this is indeed the first mention of the Beloved Disciple, then it makes him (or her) one of the first to follow Jesus. Then much later in the book, Chapter 18, verse 15, after Jesus is arrested, the narrator relates that Simon Peter and “another disciple” followed. This other, unnamed disciple knows the high priest and gains admittance to his court, and afterwards is able to get Simon Peter in as well. Speculation that this also is the Beloved Disciple, mainly because of this conspicuous anonymity, has led to much theorizing regarding his or her identity and connection to the high priest. Those on Team Magdelene might suggest that, rather than a poor prostitute, she was actually a woman of wealth, for as it indicates in Luke 8, she appeared to be funding Christ’s ministry with her own money. Therefore, as a woman of means, perhaps high-born, the high priest may have recognized her. Others have taken this passage to suggest that the Beloved Disciple was himself a priest, but more on that later.

The first time the Gospel of John refers to the Beloved Disciple overtly is in Chapter 13, verse 23, when during the Last Supper, he or she is laying his or her head lovingly upon his chest. Clearly this sounds affectionate, almost approaching intimacy, so many have looked at it as further proof for Mary Magdalene’s candidacy, while others have even suggested that there is some homoeroticism present in Christ’s relationship with this disciple. Without endorsing either theory, for the sake of clarity and brevity, I will be using male pronouns when referring to the unknown disciple from here on, as most scholarship and theories hold the character to be a man. In this scene, we again find Simon Peter present. Jesus has announced that one of his followers will betray him, and Simon Peter, seemingly in deference to the intimacy of the Beloved Disciple’s position with Jesus, suggests with a beckoning motion that he ask Christ who this betrayer will be, whereupon Jesus identifies Judas Iscariot. After this encounter, and Simon Peter’s following Jesus to the court of the high priest, where a disciple who may be the same man manages to gain them entrance, we find the Beloved Disciple present at the crucifixion, in Chapter 19, verse 26, when Jesus commends his mother into the Beloved Disciple’s care. And finally, after the problematic detail of the Magdalene seeing the tomb had been opened and fetching the Beloved Disciple, indicating they were different people, we have the moment with this Disciple whom Jesus loved, in the company of Simon Peter yet again, runs to the tomb. The Beloved Disciple outruns Peter, arriving first to see the discarded linens, but does not enter, leaving Simon Peter to investigate further.

The Beloved Disciple arrives at the Sepulchre before Peter; by James Tissot ca. 1886–94, via  Wikimedia Commons

The Beloved Disciple arrives at the Sepulchre before Peter; by James Tissot ca. 1886–94, via Wikimedia Commons

Now there is one final mention of the Beloved Disciple, and it is a doozy. In the final chapter of the book as we have received it, a further encounter with Christ is described. Out on Peter’s boat, fishing, the Beloved Disciple sees and recognizes Christ on shore. In this scene, on shore, Christ tasks Simon Peter with caring for his flock, essentially raising him up as the chief disciple. Peter asks about the Beloved Disciple, and Jesus asks what it would matter to him if he had the Beloved Disciple live until the Second Coming. This causes the disciples to suspect that Jesus has granted the Beloved Disciple immortality, but the narrator of the Gospel dispels this notion, indicating that it had been more of a rhetorical question. Then, in the very next verse, he identifies himself, saying it is this Beloved Disciple who testifies to these things…essentially saying “That’s me! I’m the Disciple whom Jesus loved!” So the question of the identity of the Beloved Disciple has long been tied up with questions of the authorship of the Gospel of John.

Although the gospels don’t name their authors, they received their names through tradition, as their original audiences were familiar with their origin. Therefore, it has always been assumed that John’s gospel was written by someone named John. The traditional view is that the author of the Gospel of John is John the Apostle, sometimes referred to with his brother as a son of Zebedee. In truth, however, the name translated first in Greek and eventually into English as John was an extremely common Palestinian name, such that the authorship of this gospel is a matter of debate. And it has been pointed out that the Sons of Zebedee were present in the boat on the Sea of Tiberius in Chapter 21 and appear to be separate people from the unnamed Beloved Disciple, whose anonymity had been so carefully cultivated throughout the book. This would therefore rule out John the Apostle. But there is no shortage of Johns to choose from. There is John Mark, but he is usually credited with writing the Gospel of Mark. There is John the Baptist, but he is referred to explicitly by the narrator rather than coyly, as the Beloved Disciple always is. Other candidates include John of Patmos and the more obscure John the Presbyter, all of whom vie for credit not only for the composition of the this gospel, but also the Epistles of John and the Book of Revelation—the so-called Johannine works. Then there is the notion, as previously stated, that this John was some unknown priest, for if he is the same unnamed disciple who entered the high priest’s court, he appears to have had connections, and this background would jibe well with the literary quality of the gospel, which does not seem to have been composed by an uneducated common man. But there is another theory that casts a wrench into the workings of any theory identifying these men with the Beloved Disciple. This being that Chapter 21 of the Gospel of John was a later addition to the book, and that its identification of the author with the Beloved Disciple is inaccurate. Many scholars point to the end of the previous chapter as evidence that this was the true original end of the book, for it concludes with a literary embellishment indicating that Jesus had performed many other works that the book had not mentioned, a flourish that is repeated again at the end of the next chapter which it is argued was appended to clarify certain doctrinal points—such as that Peter was the true head of the church, or perhaps that the Beloved Disciple certainly wasn’t a woman with whom Jesus was romantically involved.

Saint John the Evangelist, by Domenichino c. 1624-29, via  Wikimedia Commons

Saint John the Evangelist, by Domenichino c. 1624-29, via Wikimedia Commons

So the search for the Beloved Disciple continues. If his identity is not tied up with the John who wrote the book, then who was he? There have been manifold further theories. It has been pointed out that we have names for all Twelve Apostles, and even from the Book of Acts for disciples who were recommended to replace Judas, Joseph Barsabbas and Matthias, because they had followed Jesus from the beginning. Indeed, beyond the Twelve, there were at least 72 other followers during Jesus’s lifetime who might have been referred to as disciples, according to Luke 10:1. There was Nicodemus, who had asked Pilate for Christ’s body, and Joseph of Arimathea, who had donated his own tomb for his burial. Either of these figures might easily be considered candidates.

Then there is the intriguing idea supported by James Tabor that the Beloved Disciple was loved by Jesus as a brother. Some traditions, supported by scriptural passages suggest that Mary had multiple sons after Jesus: James, Joseph, Simon and Jude. These would in effect be Jesus’s half-brothers, and of them, James is the most well-known. Again, we have some confusion among characters with similar names, as James the brother of Christ is often identified with another character, James the Less (as in the younger brother?) and confused with two Apostles named James, one a son of Zebedee like John, the other a son of Alphaeus. Tabor’s theory looks at the crucifixion scene, when Jesus tells his mother to look at the Beloved Disciple and says “behold your son,” telling the Beloved Disciple likewise, “behold your mother,” and he see a literal statement that the Beloved Disciple is another son of Mary.

Another candidate with a strong case is a follower of Christ not traditionally considered a disciple: Lazarus. Scholars in the 20th century have developed his candidacy quite convincingly. Floyd Filson, in a 1949 paper for the Journal of Biblical Literature, outlines this theory with powerful clarity. Earlier in the Gospel of John, the narrator makes it abundantly clear that Jesus loved Lazarus, including no less than three indications of his love for him (Filson 85). This adds weight and pathos to Jesus’s grief and the subsequent miracle he performs. Then, when the Beloved Disciple sees the discarded linens at the tomb, he is the first to believe Christ is resurrected, which is a far less dramatic assumption coming from one who has himself been resurrected (Filson 86). And finally, this theory does not shrink from the last chapter that identifies the author as the Beloved Disciple, suggesting that the events of the gospel all take place near Bethany, where Lazarus lived, making him a natural candidate for authorship as well (Filson 86-87). And the principal scene in the final chapter, in which the other disciples believe that Jesus is suggesting the Beloved Disciple might live forever, is further illuminated by the idea that the Beloved Disciple had already been raised from the dead (Filson 86).

Christ Raises Lazarus from his Tomb (etching) via  Wellcome Collection

Christ Raises Lazarus from his Tomb (etching) via Wellcome Collection

Among all of these competing theories is yet another, that the Beloved Disciple is not a real person whose identity can be uncovered, but rather a literary trope, a figure in more than one sense. Perhaps, some scholars have suggested, the Beloved Disciple is not named because he is not a man as much as he is an idea. By this reading, he is almost always presented as a contrast to Simon Peter, a character famous for his ambivalence and failings. At the Last Supper, The Beloved Disciple asks Christ directly what Simon Peter is too timid to ask. While they both follow Christ after his arrest, the Beloved Disciple resourcefully enters the high priest’s court while Simon Peter waits at the gate and later denies his devotion to Christ. While Peter is too afraid to witness Christ’s death, the Beloved Disciple bravely attends the crucifixion. In the race to the tomb, the Beloved Disciple arrives first and is first to believe in the resurrection. And at the Sea of Tiberius, the Beloved Disciple is the first to recognize the risen Christ. If one were to read this character as symbolic, then he might represent a model for devotion and faith, juxtaposed by Simon Peter’s weaknesses. But several of the ideas we have discussed—that the gospels have been redacted, that a new ending may have been tacked onto John to rewrite the origins of the book, and that major passages may be rather more symbolic than literal—lead to some big questions. If this gospel might be doctored, and if we are meant to read it as allegorical, with fictional characters representing ideals and abstractions, what does this mean for scriptural literalists? What does this say about the literal interpretation of other books in the bible? Perhaps the lesson here is that we should not be analyzing them as primary historical sources, searching for verifiable facts in them. Perhaps, as has been suggested of other portions of scripture, it is more useful to think of them as mythology and folklore.

Jesus and John at the Last Supper, by Valentin de Boulogne c. 17th century, via  Wikimedia Commons

Jesus and John at the Last Supper, by Valentin de Boulogne c. 17th century, via Wikimedia Commons


Works Cited

Filson, Floyd V. “Who Was the Beloved Disciple?” Journal of Biblical Literature, vol. 68, no. 2, 1949, pp. 83–88. JSTOR, JSTOR,


Eustache Dauger, the Secret Prisoner in the Velveteen Mask (aka The Man in the Iron Mask)


It began as a rumor bandied about in the court of King Louis XIV. In 1711, the Duchess of Lorraine, Elizabeth-Charlotte d’Orléans, a busybody sister-in-law of the king, wrote to her aunt, Sophia of the Palatinate, former Electress of Hanover, sharing a juicy bit of gossip concerning a secret prisoner of state that had been incarcerated at the Bastille for years. What made the story so titillating was the detail that the prisoner had been masked and was guarded at all times by musketeers who had been ordered to immediately kill the man if he ever attempted to unmask himself. Elizabeth-Charlotte speculated that the prisoner was an English nobleman who had been arrested as part of a plot against William III, but as the rumor passed on and the legend began to build, that part of it fell by the wayside. Among those to take up the rumor and add to it was Voltaire, who in 1738 began to claim that he had some knowledge of the prisoner, and that during visits to the Bastille had spoken at length with his captors. In Voltaire’s version, the prisoner had been made to wear a mask forged of iron for the intriguing reason that he looked so astonishingly similar to the king. Eventually, the myth grew to include some kinship beyond mere resemblance, suggesting that the iron-masked prisoner was indeed the identical twin of the king and thus a threat to his rule, a tale immortalized by the great novelist Alexandre Dumas. But long before Dumas made popular fiction of this legend, contemporary documents had begun to surface and efforts were made to uncover the truth behind this legend. These investigations would eventually reveal that the prisoner’s mask was not made of iron at all, and indeed, we would eventually be able to match a name to this figure… but surprisingly, this would not clear up the mystery surrounding him.

The first clues as to the identity of the man behind the mask came in 1769, when a Jesuit who had formerly served as the chaplain at the Bastille turned up the journal of the former second-in-command at the Bastille. An entry in said journal for September 18, 1698, spoke of the arrival of Bénigne d'Auvergne de Saint-Mars, the new governor of the Bastille, and of an old, masked prisoner he brought with him. Then in another entry five years later, the same officer recorded the death of that mystery prisoner, noting that during his imprisonment there he had been “always masked with…black velvet” and that he had been buried under the name “Marchiel.” Thus the detail of the iron mask was among the first fictions dispelled by primary source material, and the first clue to his identity revealed! The name Marchiel led to the first theory of the prisoner’s identity: Count Ercole Antonio Matthioli, an Italian minister to the Duke of Mantua. According to a 1687 Dutch article of uncertain authenticity that just happened to appear after the revelation of the name Marchiel, Matthioli had been kidnapped in 1679 by French authorities for some intrigue having to do with King Louis XIV’s acquisition of the city of Casale, and had been imprisoned under Saint-Mars’s care first at Pignerol and afterward at the island of Sainte-Marguerite. Proponents of the theory that Matthioli was the masked prisoner tracked down the parish death records of the masked man and discovered that the journal entry had misspelled the name as Marchiel, that it was actually “Marchioly,” which was indeed very close to Matthioli.

Historical reconstruction of the Bastille in 1420, via  Wikimedia Commons

Historical reconstruction of the Bastille in 1420, via Wikimedia Commons

Historians pushing the Matthioli thesis eventually got hold of a wealth of primary source material in the form of correspondence between the masked prisoner’s custodian, Saint-Mars, and the marquee de Louvois, the war secretary, letters that discussed in detail how the prisoner was to be treated. Those in the Matthioli camp published much of this material, as it appeared to prove their claims that Matthioli had been imprisoned at Pignerol; however, it also proved to be the undoing of their thesis, as these letters showed that the man who would eventually be explicitly identified as the masked prisoner had been arrested and sent to Saint-Mars’s garrison at Pignerol in 1669, a decade before Matthioli’s supposed kidnapping. Furthermore, they showed that Matthioli had not been taken by Saint-Mars to his subsequent stations at Sainte-Marguerite island and the Bastille, as had the masked prisoner, and that Matthioli had actually died in 1694, almost a decade before the man in the velveteen mask had expired at the Bastille. And finally, this correspondence clearly provided a name that was far different from that under which the prisoner had been buried. The masked man had been called Eustache Dauger.

This name thereafter led historical detectives down another path. Eustache Dauger de Cavoye had been born into a prominent family, his father a captain of a musketeer company and his mother a lady-in-waiting to the Queen of France, Anne of Austria. Seeming to have disappeared from history after his military service, some 20th century historians came to the conclusion that the young man had settled into a depraved lifestyle and began trafficking in aphrodisiacs and so-called “inheritance powders,” a euphemism for poison, suggesting that he eventually found himself embroiled in the Affair of the Poisons, or the Chambre Ardent Affair. This was a massive scandal involving not only the widespread sale of poisons but also apparent devil worship ceremonies and infant sacrifice that involved King Louis XIV’s own mistress, an embarrassment that caused him to draw a veil of secrecy over the testimony and prosecution of those involved. Some historians went out on a limb suggesting the masked prisoner Eustache Dauger had been arrested for his part in this madness. To prove it, they pored over the surviving proceedings of the Chambre Ardent and indeed discovered a mention of a surgeon named d’Auger. However, this too, like the Matthioli thesis, failed to hold up under scrutiny, for other records showed that, though indeed this young man Eustache Dauger de Cavoye ended up in prison, he had not been secreted away at Pignerol but rather openly imprisoned at Saint-Lazare in 1668, where he would die in the 1680s.

What these theories failed to consider were the strange conditions of the masked man’s imprisonment, which the letters of war secretary Louvois and the jailer Saint-Mars make exceedingly clear. Why would there have to be so much secrecy surrounding the imprisonment of the Italian count Matthioli or the corrupt youth de Cavoye? That is the question that must be answered for any theory to hold water. Eustache Dauger appeared to be deemed a dangerous man for the secrets he held. And what’s more than that, he appears to have been not a nobleman or a well-bred bourgeoisie, but rather a lowly valet, a manservant.

Bénigne Dauvergne de Saint-Mars, governor of the Pignerol prison, via  Wikimedia Commons

Bénigne Dauvergne de Saint-Mars, governor of the Pignerol prison, via Wikimedia Commons

In 1669, then Captain de Saint-Mars served as commander of the prison within the French outpost of Pignerol in the Italian Alps, or as the Italians call it, Pinerolo in Piedmont. His only prisoner there was a man also deemed to be dangerous for the secrets he held: Nicolas Fouquet, former Superintendent of Finance who had been very publicly tried for corruption and sentenced to perpetual exile. Therefore, it seems that Pignerol was the place where Louis XIV customarily sent prisoners he felt must at all costs be sequestered from any contact with the outside world. Thus it was likely no surprise when the war secretary Louvois wrote to Saint Mars about the imminent arrival of a prisoner who must be kept completely isolated, in a special cell that commanded no view of any area where people might pass, behind a number of locked doors so that no guards could hear him speak. Saint-Mars was to personally attend to Dauger’s physical needs and to advise the prisoner that if he were to ever speak of anything other than his basic necessities, he would be immediately killed. Another dangerous political prisoner, Saint-Mars might have assumed, but perhaps he was surprised then when Louvois informed him that Dauger was just a valet and therefore required few creature comforts in his accommodations.

The precautions taken against the revelation of whatever secrets this valet held were truly extraordinary. He appears to have been arrested on secret orders and transported in hugger-mugger to the prison. He was only allowed to hear the mass said on Sundays for the other prisoner, Fouquet, if he were kept hidden away and precautions were taken to prevent him from speaking to anyone. A year after Louvois sent Dauger to Pignerol, he replaced the entire garrison, except for Saint-Mars and his staff, who remained the custodians of Fouquet and Dauger. In 1671, another political prisoner arrived, the count de Lauzun. Now with two noblemen in his charge, he had the unpleasant task of finding them valets, since apparently the nobility always required servants, even when in prison. Fouquet already had two valets, but when Lauzun required one, Saint-Mars asked the war secretary’s permission to simply have Eustache Dauger serve him, since Dauger had been a valet previous to his incarceration. Louvois forbade it, for fear that Dauger would by some indiscretion share the mysterious secret to which he was privy. Strangely, though, when one of Fouquet’s manservants died in 1674, the war secretary finally relented and said that Dauger could serve as a valet to the former Superintendent of Finance. Perhaps this seemed more acceptable, since Fouquet himself was feared to hold dangerous secrets and as he had been exiled for life, would never be able to share with anyone whatever further secrets he might learn from Dauger. Oddly, however, in 1679, the king relented in his strictness with Nicolas Fouquet and allowed him to have visits from his fellow prisoner, the count de Lauzun, and even to receive visits from his family. Before this, however, the war secretary wrote directly to Fouquet to receive assurances that Fouquet had learned nothing from Dauger of “what he knew” and “what he had seen…in his past life.” Whether or not Fouquet had admitted to learning Dauger’s secrets, he was permitted his visitations, provided that Dauger would never be present when anyone visited.

Pignerol, 1661, via  Wikimedia Commons

Pignerol, 1661, via Wikimedia Commons

When Nicolas Fouquet died in 1680, Saint-Mars discovered something problematic. The former Superintendent of Finance and the count de Lauzun had somehow managed to open up a passage between their separate chambers, which meant that not only Fouquet’s other valet but also the count had likely been in private with Eustache Dauger and may have been told whatever secrets he held. In order to somehow mitigate this breach, Saint-Mars locked the two valets up in the lower tower and lied to Lauzun, telling the count that the valets had been freed. Eventually, the count de Lauzun himself would be freed and restored to his former position, but the “men of the lower tower” remained in Saint-Mars’s charge and would until their deaths, kept in the utmost secrecy and not allowed to speak with anyone, even each other. Saint-Mars took them along with him when he received command of another frontier fortress to the northwest, where Fouquet’s other valet—an innocent man whose only crime was to have been in the presence of men with secrets—eventually died in 1687. Thereafter, Saint-Mars took his last remaining charge, the mysterious Eustache Dauger, with him to Sainte-Marguerite when he was promoted to governor of the island. Yet his orders still stood that no one was to speak to or even see the face of this Eustache Dauger, so he had the prisoner transported in a covered sedan chair carried by eight porters, a sight that inspired many rumors in Sainte-Marguerite. Once installed in his cell, however, which adjoined Saint-Mars’s own chambers so that no one else would have access to the poor, aging valet, he was not seen again until Saint-Mars’s further promotion to the governorship of the Bastille, the famous fortress in Paris. This time, however, instead of drawing more attention to his prisoner with the sedan, he simply elected to cover his face with a mask of black velvet, and thus the legend was born.

So who was this Eustache Dauger? Was “Dauger” a false name? Or was the name under which he was buried, “Marchiel” or “Marchioly,” the false name? Was he indeed a mere valet? Whom, then, had he formerly served? And what possible secrets could this poor manservant have been privy to that might have warranted such extraordinary precautions? The Matthioli theory further collapses when one considers that Matthioli’s imprisonment by the French had been no real secret. And even if it had been, there would have been no clear reason to mask him, since he would not have been a recognizable figure. Furthermore, had it been necessary to treat his incarceration so secretively, why bury him under so similar a name? Then there is the detail that the war secretary, Louvois, had left the name of the prisoner blank until after his secretaries had transcribed his dictation, only writing the name Eustache Dauger onto the missives before sending them to Saint-Mars. This would indicate that Dauger was the prisoner’s true name, held as a privileged secret, while the name under which he had been buried was the pseudonym. And this Eustache Dauger would seem to have genuinely been a valet in his former life, since even Vouloi’s earliest letters referred to him as such. Otherwise, it would have been foolishness to have him serve Fouquet in the same capacity.

So we are left with the final questions of whose valet this Dauger actually was, and what secrets he might have harbored. Andrew Lang, writing in 1903, suggested based on the timing of his arrest that Dauger may have been the notorious valet of Roux de Marcilly, a theory that proves to be one of the only explanations with some legs. Therefore let us examine it. This version starts with the negotiations of a secret treaty. For years, Charles the II, King of England, and Louis XIV, who were closely related as first cousins, had sought a closer alliance between the respective countries. Eventually this turned into earnest negotiations for the so-called Secret Treaty of Dover, which would see English ships and soldiers furnished for France’s planned conquest of the Dutch Republic in exchange for Charles receiving a substantial secret pension, provided he publicly convert to Roman Catholicism and restore the church’s power in England. It was during these lofty dealings that a suspected plot came to light, masterminded by a French Huguenot, and therefore a Protestant naturally predisposed against such a consolidation of papist power. Little is actually known about this Huguenot, Roux de Marcilly. Through a series of letters, he appears to have plotted with Charles II himself to form a league of Protestant nations against France and Louis XIV, thereby stemming the spread of Roman Catholicism. There is some doubt about Charles II’s genuine involvement in this plot, whether he really was tempted to turn against his cousin, perhaps because he was loathe to convert as Louis’s secret treaty required him to do, or whether he was humoring Marcilly while informing on him to Louis. Either way, Louis had the plotter kidnapped in Switzerland and tortured in the Bastille. He was accused of plotting the assassination of Louis XIV, but no evidence for such a plot existed, so they trotted out an old rape charge that may have been trumped up and sentenced him to death by the Catherine wheel for that. So awful and painful a death was execution by the breaking wheel, which involved having one’s bones smashed one by one and being slowly bludgeoned to death, that in his cell, Marcilly attempted to end his own life by cutting himself with a piece of broken glass. However, his guards caught him and cauterized his self-inflicted wounds with hot pokers so that he would survive to be shattered on the wheel.

A depiction of torture victims being broken on the wheel, via  Wikimedia Commons

A depiction of torture victims being broken on the wheel, via Wikimedia Commons

As Lang outlines in his essays “The Valet’s Tragedy” and “The Valet’s Master,” during his torture, Roux de Marcilly gave up his own valet, a man named Martin, as a co-conspirator. On the surface of it, this may seem absurd. When being tortured, one is compelled to give a name, and what better name than your lowly manservant, about whose life you may care little? And besides, whatever part Marcilly’s valet may have had in these matters was likely only performed in service to Marcilly, so he could hardly be considered a real player. Nevertheless, French authorities do appear to have been concerned about what the valet knew. After tracking him down in England, they questioned him, and Martin insisted he knew nothing, expressing reticence about accompanying them back to France for fear that “he would be kept in prison to make him divulge what he did not know.” Thereafter, however, the valet appears to have coyly intimated that he knew very much, perhaps because he enjoyed the attention, or perhaps in order to mock the French authorities because he felt himself safe in England. Unfortunately, the French thereafter asked Charles to surrender the man to their custody, and if we accept Lang’s thesis, which works well chronologically with Eustache Dauger’s arrest in Dunkirk in 1669, Charles gave up the valet, who was somehow—and here things turn vague—taken to Dunkirk (perhaps by a kidnapping similar to his master’s?) where he was arrested and given the prison pseudonym Eustache Dauger. In this scenario, which I find the most compelling, Dauger’s secret had to do with the existence of the Secret Treaty, about which his master clearly had information, or perhaps had something to do with Charles II’s intrigues. Nevertheless, there remain problems. If these were his secrets, then after a few short years, they would have been valueless and posed no further danger. And why keep him under lock and key for so long when they might easily have had him killed as they had his master? And why the great pains taken to conceal his identity and face? And if Dauger was a pseudonym for Martin, then why bury him under a third name?

Some of these questions can be answered with the sad assertion that this valet was merely a victim of bureaucracy and paranoia. There may have been reason to lock him away at the time, and thereafter it was only the perpetual, dogged enforcement of old and obsolete orders that kept him in captivity. However, the consistent inquiries about the prisoner in letters between Louvois and Saint-Mars indicate that even many years after Dauger’s incarceration, the king, or at least his ministers, remained concerned about what secrets the man harbored. Another explanation may be that, after allowing Dauger to serve as Nicolas Fouquet’s valet while at Pignerol, there was the further concern that Dauger, as well as the other valet, knew Fouquet’s secrets. As the Superintendent of Finance, Fouquet had once been among the most powerful men in France. Many, including Fouquet himself, believed that Louis XIV would eventually grow bored with the affairs of state and appoint Fouquet Prime Minister to rule France while Louis devoted himself to pleasure. Indeed, during his frequent meetings to go over ledgers with Louis, Fouquet appears to have exaggerated certain difficulties in the financial management of the state, perhaps in an effort to further persuade the monarch that he would not want to deal with these matters himself. However, Louis had other ideas about his kingship, and he had others whispering in his ears about Fouquet’s use of crown monies, suggesting that the Superintendent of Finance lived far too lavish a lifestyle for his own fortune to allow and that he must have been making personal use of royal funds. Indeed, Fouquet had built himself an ostentatious estate, and one day, after throwing the king a grand party, Louis, angry at the grandiose display of wealth, decided on moving against Fouquet. After arranging his arrest, Louis had him charged with various complicated crimes amounting essentially to financial chicanery, or more precisely, malversation, or corruption of office. It was a sensational trial, and with Fouquet’s many connections and allies, he managed to avoid a death sentence. Evidence turned up papers that came to the king’s attention, revealing letters from great ladies that Fouquet had seduced and accounts of the many men who were indebted to Fouquet’s generosity. The fact of the matter was that so long as Fouquet was alive, he posed a threat to the crown, so Louis had him shunted off to perpetual exile and received regular reports about anything his jailer might discover of his secrets.

Portrait of Nicolas Fouquet, via  Wikimedia Commons

Portrait of Nicolas Fouquet, via Wikimedia Commons

Clearly then, the valet Eustache Dauger may have been a supremely unlucky commoner. Having served one master that had dangerous secrets, he was then, while in prison, made to serve another master who held great secrets. And therefore he could never be allowed to leave. But this is strange logic, when one breaks it down, for the count de Lauzun surely also had opportunity to learn both the secrets of Fouquet as well as whatever secrets Dauger held, having excavated a passage between his cell and Fouquet’s and essentially had a shared chamber with them for years. Yet he was allowed to return to society. And even accepting this narrative, we still have no good explanation for why his face had to be obscured, unless it be a non-explanation, such as Louvois was being overly cautious by ordering that precautions should be taken to ensure that no one lay eyes on him, or that, in saying none should see him, Louvois actually had only meant that he should not be permitted to signal to others or have visitors and Saint-Mars had merely misconstrued the instructions to mean his face could not be seen. This is the crux of the mystery, I think: the mask and its true purpose. And this is what has led to the wildest speculation and the most outlandish theories. For example, novelist Marcel Pagnol, in the 1960s, combined the old myth about Louis XIV’s twin brother with Andrew Lang’s thesis to claim that the valet Martin involved in the plot against Louis was actually James de la Cloche, and rather than being an illegitimate son of Charles the II as many believed, he was Louis’s twin. Thus the fiction lived on.

And in a remarkable connection to our last two episodes, there is the titillating theory that Fouquet’s secret was the same as Bérenger Saunière’s secret. After all, there is an argument to be made that Fouquet’s life had been saved by the Catholic agents of a secret society, the Compagnie du Saint-Sacrement, or Company of the Blessed Sacrament, with which he had been involved. Perhaps they, like the supposed Priory of Sion, served as custodians of the Rennes-le-Château secret. And how would Fouquet have become an initiate? Well, he once received a letter from his brother, who had spoken to the painter Nicolas Poussin. An odd passage of the letter cryptically states:

He and I discussed certain things, which I shall with ease be able to explain to you in detail — things which will give you, through Monsieur Poussin, advantages which even kings would have great pains to draw from him, and which, according to him, it is possible that nobody else will ever discover in the centuries to come. And what is more, these are things so difficult to discover that nothing now on this earth can prove of better fortune nor be their equal.

And so we return to the spiraling conspiracy theory of Rennes-le-Château, which has led some addle-pated mystics to conclude that, directed by Poussin’s painting, the secret Bérenger Saunière really found there was alchemical in nature, the Philosopher’s Stone, which of course could make one rich but could also make one immortal. Then Fouquet’s secret was rather more a mystical one as well, and perhaps, after all, he did not die when the records state he did, but rather lived on, eternally young, a fact that had to be hidden by a velvet mask, for Fouquet would indeed have been recognizable and the fact that he hadn’t aged would certainly cause a sensation…. But such musings should be taken for what they are: fantasy. Remember that the masked prisoner was described as old when he arrived at the Bastille, and he died within a few years. So all we are left with, after all, are some possible suspects based on circumstantial evidence… sometimes less than that: mere coincidence! In truth, it appears that only a handful of men in 17th century France knew the identity and story of the masked prisoner, and they appear to have taken the knowledge with them to their graves. Therefore, that flimsy mask of velvet may as well have been an iron lockbox, concealing forever the answer to a riddle that has enthralled the world ever since.

An anonymous 1789 print depicting The Man in the Iron Mask, via  Wikimedia Commons

An anonymous 1789 print depicting The Man in the Iron Mask, via Wikimedia Commons

Works Cited

Martin, Ronald. “On the Trail of the Iron Mask: The State of the Question.” Proceedings of the Annual Meeting of the Western Society for French History, vol. 19, 1992, pp. 89-98. Hathi Trust Digital Library,;view=1up;seq=107.

Blind Spot: The Secret of Rennes-le-Château and Abbé Saunière’s Riches


François-Bérenger Saunière a staunch anti-Republican from a family of monarchists, received his appointment to the parish at Rennes-le-Château on June 1st, 1885, and within a couple years, he had begun to work on renovating the old tumbledown church, starting with its altar, which is said to have rested on Visigothic stone pillars, one of which was hollow and contained the notorious cipher parchments, according to Plantard’s hoax. But it does appear that Saunière had taken to exploring the grounds of his church and that he had indeed discovered at least some artifacts of interest, such as the ancient carved stone depicting a soldier and child on horseback that some have taken as proof for the survival of the Merovingian line, another thread exploited by Plantard in his masterful hoax. By 1897, we begin to see signs of Saunière’s penury having unaccountably abated, as he began to spend money on decorating his church, with statuary and other artwork that many would eventually puzzle over. In 1899, his mysterious influx of money could not be denied, for he bought land surrounding the church—all in his housekeeper’s name, Marie Dénarnaud—and began to build an ostentatious estate, a grand tower, a fine promenade, and even greenhouses for the growing of oranges. He died of a heart attack in 1917, and today, thanks to the bestsellers of Henry Lincoln and Dan Brown, the mystery of his sudden wealth endures, drawing far more visitors to his parish today than it ever received during his own life. But is there a genuine mystery here? Is this a story of hidden treasure or conspiratorial intrigue or revelatory discoveries?

Many in the past and even today scrutinize the chapel’s decorations for clues as to the nature of Saunière’s secret, believing them unusual and therefore suspecting that the parish priest had been sending coded messages through them. Henry Lincoln and those who persist in giving weight to his theories see much in them. The church’s dedication to Mary Magdalene, for example, is seen as evidence of Lincoln’s grail theories, but really the Magdelene is an important figure from the Gospels, a beloved disciple, so is there any real difference here than if the church had been dedicated to any other disciple? As I’ve already talked about extensively, people tend to see what they want to see: with little effort, statues of Joseph and Mary cradling the Christ Child become, in the eye of the credulous beholder, statues of Jesus and the Magdalene holding their child; and the landscape in the back of a painting of Mary Magdalene can be construed, with some imagination, as corresponding to imagery in a painting by Teniers, taking one down that old hoax path once again; and statues of different saints in the church’s nave can be viewed as being placed in such a way that the first letters of their names spell out the word graal, or grail, though you have to go looking for the L elsewhere in the church, among the bas-reliefs rather than statues in niches. And not only do some read into the artworks too deeply, looking for what they want to see, but also they misread them. Many consider the inscription over the chapel’s entrance to be unusual, Terribilis Est Locus, translated as “This place is terrible,” but a better translation may be “This place is awesome,” for it appears to be taken from Genesis, chapter 28, when Jacob, realizing God was in a certain place, declared, “How dreadful is this place!” Therefore, taken in this way, it’s actually quite a natural inscription for a church, where the awe-inspiring presence of God is mean to be felt and feared. One statue in particular at Rennes-le-Château especially troubles and mystifies: a devilish depiction of the demon Asmodeus kneeling beneath a baptismal font greets you as you enter. Some take this as a confirmation of the secrets of the church, for Asmodeus is a guardian of secrets and, more specifically, of the treasure of Solomon’s Temple. But a simpler explanation is that Saunière saw it as representing the Republicanism he detested. In an anti-Republican sermon he gave, his sentiments are clear: “The Republicans, now there’s the devil to be conquered and who needs to bend its knee under the weight of Religion and baptisms.”

The statue of Asmodeus at Rennes-le-Château, via Blogodisea

The statue of Asmodeus at Rennes-le-Château, via Blogodisea

If the church and its decorations are not the cryptic clues that many take them for—and why would they be? If Saunière had a secret, why would he be coyly broadcasting it with such hints?—then we must turn to logic and reason out how he may have found himself so suddenly in money. The implication of Henry Lincoln’s theories, in the book Holy Blood, Holy Grail, is that, rather than stumbling across a genuine treasure, Saunière discovered a secret that earned him money. By Lincoln’s reckoning, it was a secret about Christ that would shake the church to its foundations, and therefore Saunière must have blackmailed the Vatican for the money he came into. But if one looks at Saunière’s life, there are problems with this theory even above and beyond all the issues I reviewed in the last episode. In 1908, Bishop de Beauséjour, a bureaucrat, took an interest in Saunière and his unaccountable wealth and began to investigate him. By 1915, he had stripped Saunière of his title under accusations of trafficking in masses. This certainly doesn’t sound like a church that had been brought to heel by the dangerous secrets Saunière held.

So if the money did not come from a mysterious secret with which Saunière blackmailed the church… must it have come from treasure? Henry Lincoln and others have been led to believe that it was a Templar treasure. The Templars, of course, had amassed great fortune and perhaps many priceless relics, whether it be during their mysterious years excavating the tunnels beneath the Temple Mount, throughout their many conquests during the Crusades, or simply as the guardians of the wealth of others. This was, after all, the likeliest reason for their suppression: the seizure and redistribution of their wealth. The connection to Rennes-le-Château appeared to be through the family of Bertrand de Blanchefort, onetime Grandmaster of the order. There is a Château de Blanchefort in the area, and there had been some nobility with the title of Blanchefort that featured in the region’s history: for example, the tombstone of a Marchioness of Blanchefort took center stage in the Plantard hoax, a forged etching of it being used as the key to solve the apocryphal Saunière ciphers. And this with the fact that some of the names on the list of Priory of Sion leaders had been associated with the Templars and the notion that nearby Château de Bezu had been a Templar stronghold after their suppression led Henry Lincoln to believe Saunière had found a Templar treasure. However, more legitimate scholarship tells us that Lincoln yet again made an unsupported leap in linking Bertrand de Blanchefort to Château de Blanchefort and the Marchioness of Blanchefort supposedly buried at Rennes-le-Château, as it appears the only genuine connection between them is the name. And furthermore, his assertion that Château de Bezu was a Templar stronghold appears to be just as unfounded.  

But even dismissing the Templar connection, there are still likely narratives supporting the presence of a treasure. When Catholic Crusaders came through the region in the 13th century to stamp out the gnostic Cathar heretics, it was said that some escaped with the so-called “treasures of their faith,” whatever those were. Of course, that theory resembles the Templar theory in its reliance on speculation, so let us turn to a theory that requires fewer suppositions. We know that Saunière explored the grounds of his church extensively, digging beneath and even disturbing some of the tombs in the cemetery. Could he have found gold, as the legend so often says? Or if not gold, perhaps some precious relic that he sold to the church through some intermediary? In excavating beneath his church, he lifted a flagstone that was in reality a valuable artifact—the carving of the soldier with the child on horseback that Lincoln and others have made much of, which some historians suggest is only a depiction of a Carolingian boar hunt—and it is frequently said that beneath this, he found some old coins and a chalice that he gave to his friend, another priest in a nearby parish, Amélie-les-Bains. The chalice remains there today… but it appears to be a 19th century item that merely mimics the medieval style, so perhaps it was just something Saunière picked up for him in a gift shop. Still, could it be that this was the moment of his discovery? He is said to have told the workers helping him that the coins were medallions of little value and to have sent them home. Perhaps seeing this small bit of treasure, he immediately dispatched them so he could investigate himself, and perhaps he went on to discover more than one cache of coins. As previously discussed, the region had been a stronghold of the Visigoths, who had sacked Rome. Whether or not they carried off the treasures of King Solomon that Romans had earlier taken from the Holy Land, surely they carried off some treasure. This remains, at least it seems to me, a distinct possibility.

The Knights Stone artifact, via  Rennes-le-Château Research and Resource

The Knights Stone artifact, via Rennes-le-Château Research and Resource

But there is one last treasure theory that we should consider, and this one may indeed lead us to a better understanding of the entire legend. This was the original treasure legend, offered when in 1956 one Noël Corbu first shared the mystery of Abbé Saunière’s wealth to a wider audience in an interview with the newspaper, La Dépêche du Midi (Putnam and Wood 19). Corbu had heard the story of Saunière’s mysterious wealth from Marie Dénarnaud, Saunière’s housekeeper and sole heir. According to Corbu, Dénarnaud had confided to him that Saunière had discovered the treasure of Louis VIII’s wife, Blanche de Castile, an amount of about 18 million francs that was still hidden away somewhere in Rennes-le-Château. The problem is that there is no evidence that any such treasure ever belonged to this this historical figure, let alone that it would have been secreted away in this little mountain village. In truth, Noël Corbu, a businessman, had purchased the lavish estate that Saunière had left behind, Villa Bethania, and sought to make of it a hotel. But Rennes-le-Château was such an isolated place, he didn’t know how he could drum up enough guests to turn a profit. To him, then, the local legend about the priest and his mysterious wealth was a godsend. He cooked up a completely fabricated hidden treasure story, disseminated it through the newspapers, and watched with satisfaction as reservations began to pour in.

Thus even at its very beginnings, the legend of treasure at Rennes-le-Château is steeped in hoax and false history. While the notion that Saunière found some Visigothic artifacts of value beneath his church is certainly plausible, the absolute swamp of fabrication and fantasy that surrounds every part of this mystery makes it difficult to give any theory much credence. So perhaps, then, we should apply the rule of Occam’s Razor to cut through the baloney. What is the simplest and least complicated explanation for his wealth? Well, Saunière was a charming man and does appear to have accepted gifts from wealthy women. Moreover, during the last decade of his life, as Bishop de Beauséjour investigated him, charges of trafficking in masses led to the loss of his title. It appears that Saunière was collecting payment for prayers on a large scale. Bishop de Beauséjour found advertisements that Saunière had placed in Catholic magazines all over France and concluded that he could not possibly have said all the masses for which he had accepted payment. So there you have it; evidence of the source of his wealth, and ill-gotten at that. But could he have possibly amassed great riches this way? In truth, Saunière might not have been so rich as he seemed. Judging from the money he spent does not necessarily give an accurate representation of the money he had, for at the time of his death, as his ecclesiastical trial continued, Saunière was deeply in debt (Putnam and Wood 18).

In the end, like many true historical mysteries, it really depends on what you want to believe. If you have the heart of an adventurer, you may ignore the evidence that suggests the priest was just a charlatan in favor of the idea that there is gold in those hills. And if you’re of a skeptical mind, you dismiss it as fanciful garbage. As we have seen so many times, it is in these intersections of fact and myth, in these areas where faith conflicts with reason, that historical blind spots endure.


Works Cited

Putnam, Bill and John Edwin Wood. "Unravelling the Da Vinci Code." History Today, vol. 55, no. 1, Jan. 2005, pp. 18-20. EBSCOhost,

The Priory of Sion and the Quest for the Holy Grail, or Lincoln's Links and Plantard's Plans

Dante Gabriel Rossetti's  The Damsel of the Sanct Grael , via  Wikimedia Commons

Dante Gabriel Rossetti's The Damsel of the Sanct Grael, via Wikimedia Commons

In 1969, while on holiday in rural France, Henry Lincoln, an actor and writer for British television who had recently penned some scripts for Doctor Who, happened to read a fascinating little memoir in French, half travel guide and half buried treasure mystery, called in translation The Gold of Rennes, or The Cursed Treasure of  Rennes-le-Château, by Gérard de Sède. Thus was he initiated into a mystery that had long fascinated many in France, though few knew of it beyond that country’s borders.

The mystery of Rennes-le-Château, a sleepy little hilltop town in the Languedoc region of southern France between the Cevennes and Pyrenees Mountains, revolves around a priest named Bérenger Saunière, who began in 1885 to serve as the priest of the church at Rennes-le-Château, which was dedicated to Mary Magdalene. Saunière was poor, as was his church, which was in need of repair, but somehow, within twenty years, he managed to come into great wealth and rebuilt the church as well as his own estate in a lavish manner. The mystery, then, was and still remains the source of Bérenger Saunière’s fortune, which has never been satisfactorily explained and thus has spawned many a legend. According to Gérard de Sède’s book, Saunière discovered four parchments in a hollow pillar while restoring his church. Two of these were genealogies, and the other two were ciphers. Saunière took the parchments to Paris, where he had them deciphered and then promptly bought some reproductions of certain paintings from the Louvre, paintings that were somehow important to the secret he possessed: among them The Shepherds of Arcadia by Nicholas Poussin as well as a painting by David Teniers, the Younger, featuring St. Anthony. These elements of the mystery would be much dwelt upon by Henry Lincoln, but what he found truly tantalizing about Gérard de Sède’s book was that the author claimed to have somehow come into possession of Saunière’s parchment ciphers and even reproduced them, and Lincoln managed quite easily to crack the simplest of them, which after its decipherment reads: “To King Dagobert II and to Sion belongs this treasure, and he is dead there.” This corresponded well with the coy intimations de Sède makes throughout his work, involving the Merovingian kings of ancient France, a rather mysterious dynasty claiming descent from ancient Troy, priest-kings with long hair said to be divinely chosen to rule the Franks. Establishing a holy empire in partnership with the Roman Catholic Church, the Merovingian King Clovis on the church’s behalf suppressed the heretical Visigoths who had previously sacked Rome and perhaps carried off the treasure of the Temple of Jerusalem, driving them back to their strongholds in the Razés, the region where today stands Rennes-le-Château. According to the narrative de Sède pushed somewhat coquettishly, when the Merovingian King Dagobert II was assassinated, his son Sigisbert IV survived, smuggled to the Languedoc where he would assume a false identity as the Count of Rhedae, called Plantard, a part of the story supposedly supported by a relief sculpture at Rennes-le-Château of a soldier carrying a child on horseback. Thus the decoded cipher—a treasure, the Visigoth booty from Rome, belonging to King Dagobert II—and the further suggestions of dynastic intrigue and the survival of the Merovingian line, along with the unanswered questions—what was the significance of this “Sion” to whom the treasure also belonged? and what could it mean that “he is dead there” when Dagobert II was known to be buried elsewhere?—were enough to draw Henry Lincoln headlong into the rabbit hole.

The small parchment easily decoded by Lincoln, via Rennes-le-Château Research and Resource

The small parchment easily decoded by Lincoln, via Rennes-le-Château Research and Resource

Lincoln managed to convince the BBC to produce a series of documentaries on the mystery for the television program Chronicle. As he began to write the first of these programs, The Lost Treasure of Jerusalem (1972), he contacted Gérard de Sède hoping to examine his research materials, including photographs of the parchments to which he had claimed to have access. De Sède obliged, and Lincoln began to suspect the author of harboring some secret knowledge about which he was less than forthcoming. When Lincoln asked why he had not published the solution to the simple cipher in his book, de Sède answered, “We thought it might interest someone like you to find it for yourself.” Just who the other half of this “we” was remained a mystery, although Lincoln had his first clue when he noticed the name Plantard stamped on the back of certain items among de Sède’s materials. Subsequently, as Lincoln and his team sought further documentation from de Sède and presumably from his secret collaborators, they were directed to the Bibliotèque Nationale in Paris, where catalogued in a specific place they found a treasure trove of historical documents pertinent to the mystery, collected under the melodramatic title, the Secret Dossier. In the dossier was one work called The Merovingian Treasure at Rennes-le-Château by one Antoine the Hermit, detailing much of the legend of Bérenger Saunière as Gérard de Sède had it. Then there was Engraved Stones of the Languedoc by Joseph Cortauly, which included drawings of tombstones from the Rennes-le-Château churchyard, a work that would prove necessary to decode the larger of the two parchments said to have been found in the pillar by Saunière. And finally, there were the works of Henri Lobineau, one a Merovingian genealogy that traced the royal line all the way to an extant family by the familiar name of Plantard, and specifically to one Pierre Plantard. The other was Lobineau’s “Secret Files,” newspaper cuttings hinting at people being murdered over the secret at Rennes-le-Château, further genealogies and coats of arms, and official looking documents. On the first page of this work appeared a dedication, “To Monsignor the Count of Rhedae, Duke of Razès, the legitimate descendant of Clovis I, King of France, most serene child of the ‘King and Saint’ Dagobert II.”

The cover page of  Dossiers Secrets d'Henri Lobineau , via  Just Some Info

The cover page of Dossiers Secrets d'Henri Lobineau, via Just Some Info

One drawing of a tombstone in Engraved Stones of the Languedoc in particular caught Lincoln’s eye as being unusual in that it seemed composed of both Latin and Greek letters, which upon closer examination appeared to say “Et In Arcadia Ego,” or “Even in Arcadia, I Am There,” a phrase or theme treated by numerous artists having to do with the idea that even in a paradise, death is present—a natural enough inscription for a tombstone. But Lincoln saw a link to Nicolas Poussin, whose painting Et In Arcadia Ego, sometimes called The Shepherds of Arcadia, was already part of the Bérenger Saunière legend, being one of the paintings he bought reproductions of after having the parchments decoded. And further adding to the mystique of the drawing was the fact that the tombstone the drawing depicted had supposedly been chiseled away by Saunière, as though he were trying to destroy an important clue. Luckily for Lincoln and his partners, the inscription had been rendered, along with the inscription of a headstone that was now entirely missing, and preserved for them in the Secret Dossier. The importance of these tombstones was confirmed when, during the filming of his first documentary, Gérard de Sède contacted him and gave him the solution to the  more complex cipher of the two parchments said to have been discovered by Saunière in the pillar. It turned out that the text of the headstone had been the key. The parchment code itself, embedded in the Latin text of a passage from the Gospel of John, was far more complicated than the first code, which even Lincoln described as being as simple as something a schoolboy might have created. This greater parchment code’s decipherment was therefore surpassingly, almost comically complicated. I’ll spare you the tedious details of this convoluted process. Decoded, it read: shepherdess no temptation poussin teniers hold the key peace 681 by the cross and this horse of God I destroy this demon guardian at midday blue apples.

The alleged tombstones said to be the key to the greater parchment cipher, via  Rhedesium .

The alleged tombstones said to be the key to the greater parchment cipher, via Rhedesium.

One can only imagine the exhilaration felt by Lincoln, with all signs pointing to him being on the trail of a genuine solution to the mystery. Most of the decoded message seemed meaningless, and even today its meaning remains much debated, but further mention of Poussin and Teniers, the two painters whose works it was said Saunière bought reproductions of after solving the cipher himself, sent Lincoln on a quest to find the hidden meaning in their works. He determined that the phrase “shepherdess no temptation” referred to Teniers’s one painting of St. Anthony that was NOT focused on his temptation, St. Anthony and St. Paul in the Desert, in which can be seen a shepherdess in the background. Frustrated at the lack of significant seeming clues in this painting, though, he instead focused on Poussin’s The Shepherds of Arcadia, which did feature a shepherdess, but more importantly featured the phrase “Et in Arcadia Ego” that had been on the tombstone that served as the key to the parchment code. The painting features a group of shepherds pointing at a tomb where the phrase is inscribed, and according to most art historians, beyond the significance of the phrase as symbolic of death’s ubiquity, the work depicts the legendary invention of painting as one of the shepherds can either be seen as tracing the words or tracing his own shadow with his finger, the act that led to the conception of painting. Lincoln, however, believed there was far more to the painting, and yet again, he was led to believe by Gérard de Sède, who sent him a photograph of and directions to an actual stone landmark in the Languedoc that resembled the tomb in the painting. After tracking down this landmark, Lincoln came to believe that the landscape featured in the painting behind the tomb was in reality a depiction of the view behind this stone box in the neighborhood of Rennes-le-Château, despite historians’ assertions that Poussin had never visited the region. Was the resemblance convincing, or was Lincoln seeing what he wanted to see? Well, Lincoln certainly seems to suffer from confirmation bias. In a textbook example of apophenia, the perception of connections between unrelated things and meaning in the meaningless—another perfect example of which we just explored in our look at the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe—he began to assert there were unusual and symbolically significant geometrical patterns in the painting. While it is true that Poussin’s work is often governed by the artistic and geometrical principle of the golden ratio, as are the works of many painters of his period, Lincoln believed that geometrical patterns matching others that he perceived in the coded parchments were present, eventually leading him to believe that, when extended beyond the borders of the painting, they represented a pentacle, or pentagram, and that this perfect geometrical design could be drawn on a map of the Languedoc region simply by connecting various landmarks. None of this brought him tangibly closer to any solution to the riddles he had begun seeing everywhere, but it did send him in new directions, searching for occult and religious angles on the mystery.

Poussin's The Shepherds of Arcadia, with a photo of the stone tomb near Arques that Lincoln believed was depicted in it and a diagram of the geometric patterns he believes are present in the painting. 

Poussin's The Shepherds of Arcadia, with a photo of the stone tomb near Arques that Lincoln believed was depicted in it and a diagram of the geometric patterns he believes are present in the painting. 

Among the secret files of Henri Lobineau in the Bibliotèque Nationale was a table purporting to be a list of the leaders of an organization and the years during which they served. The organization was called the Priory of Sion, or the Order of the True Rose-Cross, and it served as the explanation of many cryptic mentions of the word Sion and the initials P and S in the documents Lincoln had been studying. The names of its grand masters or “helmsmen” included a veritable who’s who of storied alchemists and famous artists: Nicolas Flamel, Leonardo Da Vinci, Robert Fludd, Robert Boyle, Isaac Newton, Victor Hugo, Claude Debussy, and Jean Cocteau. Lincoln himself admits this Dramatis Personae is too fanciful to be believed, but instead of doubting it, he insists on keeping an open mind and investigating the Priory’s existence further. And indeed, he did find a document from the 12th century showing the existence of an organization with a similar name, the Order of Sion. Then he made something of a precipitous leap in reasoning. This sounded like a secret society, and many secret societies were rumored to have been associated with the Knights Templar, and some of the names on the list were said to have been Templars. Therefore, the Priory of Sion was the secret society that originated the Templars, and the lost treasure of the Templars may actually be the treasure secreted somewhere around Rennes-le-Château, as twelve Templars were said to have escaped their order’s destruction and taken refuge in nearby Château de Bézu. Now the unsupported connections he makes here are typical of Lincoln and his work; he makes an interesting and seemingly feasible speculation, but then without seeking confirmation or evidence, he then takes the premise as a given and uses it as a stepping stone to reach his next conclusion. For example, at one point in his documentaries, he makes reference to a memorial cross at Rennes-le-Château and its  inscription of “Christus A.O.M.P.S. Defendit,” stating categorically that it can only mean “Christus Antiquus Ordo Mysticusque Prioratus Sionis Defendit, or “Christ defends the ancient mystical order of the Priory of Sion.” In point of fact, however, this inscription is actually a relatively common one, meaning “Christus Ab Omni Malo Plebem Suam Defendat” or “Christ defends his people against every evil.” This pretty much sums up the historical rigor of Henry Lincoln’s work, so it’s no surprise that he ended up tapping into the common conspiracy view of history, in which there is a long tradition of belief that the Templars persisted after their suppression, hiding among other secret societies like the Freemasons. It all makes for a wild and sprawling tale, to be certain, and it expands the lore of Rennes-le-Château to epic proportions… but it’s not historical research so much as it is unfettered conjecture.

By the third documentary in his series, Shadow of the Templars (1979), after exhausting nearly all the avenues of inquiry he had taken from the Secret Dossier and concluding that the Priory of Sion existed even to present day and was dedicated to preserving the Merovingian dynasty and restoring it to power, Lincoln interviewed the mysterious man behind some of Gérard de Sède’s sources, Pierre Plantard, who appeared to be a member of the Priory and the true descendant of the Merovingian line. Plantard was coy but revealing in his interview, indicating that the Priory of Sion did exist, and confirming that it existed to protect and promote the Merovingian bloodline as the true rulers of France. Moreover, he hinted playfully that the true treasure of Rennes-le-Château may not have been gold but rather this powerful secret, knowledge of which earned Saunière a fortune in hush money: that pure-blooded Merovingians still survived, prepared to revive their claim to a throne that no longer existed. The notion of the real treasure being a secret jibed well with Lincoln’s idea that the surviving Templars had carried the treasure to the Languedoc after their escape, for a few men could not possibly have carried vast stores of gold but could easily carry a secret. So Lincoln took this notion and ran with it. The problem was that he rightly didn’t believe the secret Plantard offered was really that explosive. So what if the Merovingians had survived? They were one dynasty among many, none of which would be granted any power in modern-day democratic France regardless of how dramatically they revealed themselves. Therefore, there had to be some deeper secret to the bloodline of the Merovingians, he reasoned, something warranting their continuous preservation through the centuries by a powerful secret society. What he settled on would serve as the basis of his 1982 bestseller, Holy Blood, Holy Grail.

Alexander Andreyevich Ivanov's  Appearance of Jesus Christ to Maria Magdalena , a depiction of Christ telling the Magdalene not to touch him after his resurrection, via  Wikimedia Commons

Alexander Andreyevich Ivanov's Appearance of Jesus Christ to Maria Magdalena, a depiction of Christ telling the Magdalene not to touch him after his resurrection, via Wikimedia Commons

The theory advanced by Henry Lincoln and his co-authors Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh completely turned the story of the life of Jesus Christ and the Easter story on its head. They hypothesized that the appellation “Christ” actually indicated that Jesus was a literal king of the house of David, making the sign King of the Jews atop the cross rather more a literal designation than a mockery of him. And they further suggested that Mary Magdalene, his “beloved disciple,” who tradition tells us was a reformed prostitute, was actually his wife and mother of his children. Their theory goes on to propose that his crucifixion was a sham, and thus his resurrection was just a matter of him revealing himself after his death had been faked. As they reimagined things, Mary Magdalene, either alone or with Jesus, took the offspring of Christ to ancient Gaul, before it became France, where she might find refuge with the Jews already in exile there. This accorded well with Mary Magadelene’s place in the Grail Romances as the figure who brought the Holy Grail to Europe, and indeed rewrote the whole idea of what the Holy Grail, the cup that caught the blood of Christ, actually was, suggesting that the original word in the earliest iterations of the tale, “sangraal,” had been erroneously divided into “san graal,” or holy grail, when it should have been divided as “sang raal,” or blood royal. Thus Mary Magdalene had smuggled the bloodline of Jesus into ancient France, where his descendants established themselves as the holy long-haired priest-kings of the Merovingian dynasty, a paradigm shifting secret guarded ever since the Middle Ages by the Priory of Sion and the Templars and discovered by Bérenger Saunière at Rennes-le-Château, where the church had been dedicated to Mary Magdalene.

Now even disregarding the fact that no concrete evidence is offered to support this alternative reading of biblical and European history, there are both logical and historical objections to the wild assertions it relies on. For example, there is no historical consensus on the identity of Mary Magdalene. Lincoln et al. would have you believe that she was the victim of a smear campaign to rewrite her character as a fallen woman when actually she was Jesus’s longsuffering wife, again an assertion with little support. Meanwhile other historians, namely Robert Sheaffer, have suggested that there never was a Mary Magdalene. Citing Roman philosopher Celsus’s accusations that Jesus had propagated the myth of his immaculate conception to cover for the fact that his mother, Mary, had been impregnated by a Roman soldier and thus driven away by her carpenter husband as an adulteress to bear her child in shame, he raises the possibility that the name Mary Magdalene was a corruption of Miriam m’qadella, referring to Mary by her occupation as a dresser of women’s hair, making the accusations of Mary Magdalene’s harlotry rather more a condemnation of Mother Mary’s sexual dalliances. And true historians could go on refuting almost every element of Lincoln’s mammoth pseudo-history, pointing out such simple omissions as the fact that no signs of the activities of the Priory of Sion or their grand masters’ involvement in it has ever been turned up, even though many of them were remarkably famous figures, their lives studied and written about extensively. Or the facts that Bérenger Saunière likely never found any mysterious parchments, as the recess in the hollow pillar preserved at Rennes-le-Château was not large enough to hold them, and that he could not have bought reproductions of a Poussin or any other paintings from the Louvre, which didn’t sell such things at the time. The thing is, historians don’t need to do this, because even before Henry Lincoln ever read about the mystery and began his decades long freefall down its rabbit hole, it had been revealed to be a hoax.

A cheeky-looking Pierre Plantard, via  La Roche Aux Loups

A cheeky-looking Pierre Plantard, via La Roche Aux Loups

As it turns out, Gérard de Sède hadn’t written his influential book so much as edited and punched up a manuscript by the supposedly Merovingian pretender Pierre Plantard. And in 1967, during a dispute over the royalties for de Sède’s book, Plantard revealed that the parchments he’d provided had been forgeries, their ciphers designed by his partner Philippe de Chérisey. The two of them had become intrigued by the mystery of Bérenger Saunière and Rennes-le-Château and had dreamed up a scheme that today might be called an alternate reality game. Indeed, Plantard had forged all of the documents in the so-called Secret Dossier and planted them in the Bibliotèque Nationale, where there is no official record of the documents’ registration. Why de Sède continued to play along with Plantard’s game while feeding the clues to Lincoln, I don’t really understand, unless at some point, once Plantard had learned of this new potential promulgator of his lies, he had begun writing directly to Lincoln as Gérard de Sède. It would not be a stretch considering his history of composing forgeries under pseudonyms.

The dubious character of Pierre Plantard is plain to see. At 17 years old, in 1937, Plantard became involved in right-wing politics, attempting to form an anti-Masonic and anti-Semitic organization whose goal was to purify France in response to the rise of a socialist and Jewish prime minister, Léon Blum. His endeavors resulted in the formation of the group Alpha Galates, some of the publications of which indicate his interest in the occult, especially in the ideas of Paul Le Cour, who promoted a spiritual tradition supposedly originating in Atlantis, which looked forward to a coming Age of Aquarius. Some symbols from Le Cour’s work, notably the octopus, would later appear in some drawings among Plantard’s forgeries. Demonstrating his anti-Semitism, in 1940, Plantard wrote to the head of the Nazi puppet regime at Vichy to warn of Jewish-Masonic conspiracies, and in the 1950s, he served a couple of prison terms totaling 18 months for misappropriation of property and corrupting minors. After the longer of his prison terms, in 1956, again still much influenced by the writings of Le Cour, he registered a new organization called the Priory of Sion with statutes very similar to those of Alpha Galates. It was sometime after this that he and his friend the artist Philippe de Chérisey became enamored with the mystery of  Bérenger Saunière and Rennes-le-Château, visited the village and eventually forged and planted false documents in the Bibliotèque Nationale intended to document and therefore legitimize Pierre Plantard’s little right-wing society, the Priory of Sion, as well as his descent from the Merovingian kings and claim as the rightful ruler of France, all of which has been proven to be meticulously orchestrated hogwash. It appears to be nothing but an ironic twist that Henry Lincoln veered off the trail Plantard had prepared for him and asserted that Plantard was actually of the bloodline of Christ, suggesting this anti-Semite was actually a Jew.

So the matter appeared to have been settled. It was all a hoax. Perhaps the greatest modern hoax since Leo Taxil’s publications about devil-worshipping Palladian Freemasons, but a hoax nonetheless. Yet as we have seen before, in the anti-Semitic myths of the blood libel and the Protocols of Zion, as well as in such articles of religious faith as the Shroud of Turin, even when historical and scientific evidence demonstrate the falseness of something, that won’t necessarily dissuade true believers. And just so, there remain today many treasure hunters skulking about Rennes-le-Château as well as pseudo-historians who believe Christ himself might be buried somewhere near Bérenger Saunière’s church. And most still rely on Lincoln’s geometry in Poussin’s paintings and other clues originating from Plantard’s forged documents, rationalizing that though he may have faked them all, perhaps he was an initiate with access to secret truth after all. But one can doubt or believe anything based on such logic. As Umberto Eco puts it in his novel Foucault’s Pendulum, which many believe was inspired at least in part by Henry Lincoln’s conspiracy addled views of history, “…the whole world is an enigma, a harmless enigma that is made terrible by our own mad attempt to interpret it as though it had an underlying truth.”

The Marian Apparition of Guadalupe and Her Fantastical Portrait


Legends of Marian Apparitions, or the earthly visitations of Mary, mother of Christ, stretch all the way back to the 1st century, CE, and have always been associated with the Spanish-speaking world. According to Catholic lore, in 40 CE, St. James was on a mission in Spain, and Mary appeared to him atop a stone pillar, carried by angels and holding a statue of herself and the Christ child. This was while Mary was still alive! She encouraged James in his ministry and requested that he build her a chapel on the spot, which he did, and today there stands on that spot a great basilica, Nuestra Senora del Pilar, or Our Lady of the Pillar. This tradition of Marian apparitions appearing and asking that a church be built would continue through the ages, and the story of Our Lady of Guadalupe, which also begins in the Old World, in Spain, would have many similarities to this original legend. The original image of the Virgin of Guadalupe is said to have been a statue carved by St. Luke himself, one of many so-called Black Madonnas, or statues of Mary and the Christ child depicting them with dark skin. According to the legend of the Virgin of Guadalupe, this statue of St. Luke’s was venerated by Pope Gregory around the end of the 6th and beginning of the 7th century, and believing the statue had miraculously helped Rome survive famine and rampant disease, Pope Gregory gave it to his special friend, Leander, Archbishop of Seville. When Seville fell to the moors in 712, some priests took the statue to Extremadura and buried it near the Guadalupe River, where it was stayed for over 600 years. The legend has it that in 1325 CE, Mary appeared to a shepherd and told him to dig in his field, where he found the statue. The Spanish Virgin of Guadalupe endures to this day at the Guadalupe Monastery in Extremadura, the simple statue now clothed in ornate gold vestments that are quite a sight to see.

About 160 years later, a boy would be born in the Extremadura region of Spain, and he would grow up hearing the story of this Marian apparition and venerating this Black Madonna. His name was Hernán Cortés, and as a man, he would become a Conquistador, a conqueror of foreign lands for the Spanish Empire, best known for his conquest of the Aztecs in what is today Mexico. After the long siege of the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlán, in 1521 Cortés renamed it Mexico City and began to remake it as a European city, destroying the pagan temples of the Aztecs and raising other buildings in their place. Believing that the conversion of the natives to Catholicism was essential to the success of their colonial venture, he sent for Dominican and Franciscan friars who arrived in 1524 and began the difficult task of proselytizing the resistant indigenous population.

Portrait of Hernán Cortés, via Wikimedia Commons

Portrait of Hernán Cortés, via Wikimedia Commons

It was in this context that the most influential story of a Marian apparition in history emerged and aided in the conversion of great multitudes to the Catholic faith. This story comes to us from a document believed by many to have been composed in the Nahuatl language by a native man who born in the midst of the Spanish conquest of his people and thereafter educated by the Franciscan friars Cortés had brought to evangelize the natives: Don Antonio Valeriano. This document, the Nican Mopohua, was widely printed in tracts in the mid-17th century, but there is one version in the New York Public Library’s collection believed by many to date much earlier, and to perhaps even be in Valeriano’s own hand. The Nican Mopohua, which loosely translates to “here it is told,” relates the story of one Juan Diego, a simple farmer who in 1531, a decade after the fall of Tenochtitlán, passed a hill called Tepeyac that was shaped like a nose protruding from a face. Drawn by the beautiful strains of a song to its summit, he there encountered a luminous figure around whom the rocks and foliage of the hill appeared transfigured with preternaturally brilliant color like precious stones. She introduced herself to Juan Diego as “the perfect, ever-virgin, holy Mary, mother of the one great god of truth who gives us life, the inventor and creator of people, the owner and lord…of the earth” and requested that her sacred house be built upon the hill Tepeyac. On this errand, Juan Diego sought the audience of the Archbishop of Mexico City, Juan de Zumárraga, who after hearing the story dismissed the farmer incredulously. Juan Diego then returned to the hill Tepeyac, and finding Mary still there, begged her to send someone else, but again she dispatched him with her message. This time when Juan Diego spoke with Zumárraga, the Archbishop asked for a sign.

Thereafter relating this request to the apparition of Mary, who seems to have stuck around quite patiently, she bade Juan Diego to return the next day for a sign. But Juan Diego’s uncle was gravely ill the next day, and Juan Diego could not go to the hill as he had to fetch a priest. However, as Juan Diego passed by the hill on a road, the Marian apparition actually came walking down the hill to him asking why he hadn’t come. When Juan Diego explained, she assured him that his uncle was well, and later he discovered that Mary had actually appeared to his uncle and healed him at the same time that she came to him on the road! After assuring him of his uncle’s health, she instructed him to climb the hill, gather the flowers he found there, and take them to the Archbishop. Now this was December, and the hill quite rocky, so it was inexplicable that Juan Diego found there an abundance of flowers the like of which he’d never seen before, all of preternaturally vivid color. Juan Diego pulled his cloak around in front of him and gathered many flowers in it. This cloak was called a tilma, and was made of ayate, or roughly-woven agave fiber. A practical garment, it was commonly used as a blanket to keep one warm when sleeping outdoors and also to carry items to and from market, as Juan Diego used it when he carried the flowers to Archbishop Zumárraga. Upon releasing the tilma’s burden, the Archbishop was surprised to see a pile of gorgeous Castilian roses, but this was not the true sign that Mary had given, for miraculously, where the flowers had come into contact with the cloth, an image of the Virgin Mary had been formed. There she stood, cloaked, her hands pressed together as if in prayer, her head bowed, and her face, dark of skin, looking very much like a mestiza, the offspring of a Spaniard and an indigenous person.  Thereafter, the Ayate of Juan Diego with its image of Mary, became the central miracle of Latin America and the driving force behind the conversion of the native peoples to Catholicism. A church was indeed built on hill Tepeyac, and today the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe (a name that the Marian apparition apparently chose for herself, thus identifying her with the apparition of Extremadura) is the most visited pilgrimage site in the world, receiving as many as 20 million believers and tourists a year, many of whom approach on their knees. The famous tilma with its breathtaking image is there displayed for all to admire.

Juan Diego by Miguel Cabrera, via  Wikimedia Commons

Juan Diego by Miguel Cabrera, via Wikimedia Commons

Among the many supernatural properties attributed to the Guadalupe tilma is that the material should not have survived so long. Agave fiber cloth is known to be more fragile than other cloth and usually does not age as well because parasites are known to more aggressively feed on such fabrics. For example, paintings known to have been made on ayate canvases are recorded to have not lasted 10 years, even under glass, and yet for its first 120 years, the Guadalupe tilma wasn’t even protected by glass. During this time, a great many candles were likely burned near it, exposing it to damaging smoke, and countless people touched it directly with their naked hands, yet not only has its fabric not deteriorated, but its color hasn’t even faded! And the tilma has survived more than just time. In 1791, while polishing its frame, a worker spilled nitric acid down the side of the image… and yet the colors do not even appear to have faded where the acid touched them, and some even believe the stain from this accident is inexplicably fading. Similarly, in 1921, a dissident laid a bouquet full of dynamite at the altar in front of the framed tilma, and when it detonated, the blast crumbled the marble steps at the altar, destroyed metal candle sticks, bent a big metal cross, and even reportedly shattered windows in nearby houses… and yet the image and the glass that protected it remained unscathed.

In the 1750s, an artist named Miguel Cabrera examined the tilma and painted copies of the image. It was his opinion that no artist in his right mind would have chosen this particular ayate as a canvas, as seams are traditionally hidden in painting canvases, but the tilma has a prominent seam right down the middle. Moreover, he believed that no human artist could reproduce that manifold techniques he saw at work in the image, which included the weaving of pigmented dust into the very fabric—a technique unfamiliar to him—and all on fabric that looked like it had received no imprimatur or preparation layer treating the fabric to better receive paint. Rather, the tilma’s weave is open and see through, and remarkably, the many knots and imperfections in the fabric have been perfectly used to create volume in the image, for example in Mary’s lips and nose. Many agree that this is a masterful artistic accomplishment bordering on uncanny, as the canvas and the image would have had to have been planned flawlessly to take advantage of these textures.

And the unusual claims don’t end there. The Guadalupe tilma, like the Turin shroud, has been the object of much study, resulting in much apparent mystery. In 1936, Nobel Prize winning chemist Richard Kuhn examined two colored fibers and said he couldn’t determine the origin of their pigments, claiming they weren’t animal, vegetable, or mineral. In 1946, a Dr. Tortolero of the Institute of Biology studied the image under a microscope and asserted that there was no indications of any brushstrokes. Then in the 1980s, Professors Jodie B. Smith and Philip Serna Callahan used infrared photography to analyze the image, claiming to confirm what many had already asserted: the fabric has received no preparation and there are no brushstrokes, as though it were created all at once, instantaneously. Considering the fact that details of the image can be seen even on the reverse side of the fabric, it would even appear that there is not more than one layer of pigment present. And so on, the attribution of sensationally complicated, essentially humanly impossible, design details continues. Some say constellations can be matched up with the star field on her cloak and other points in the painting, supposedly reproducing the constellations in their position at the time that Mary made her appearance. However, these constellations could not be matched until they were considered in reverse, as though seen not from earth but from beyond. Furthermore, mathematicians have claimed to find perfect geometrical shapes on the tilma, corresponding to the so-called golden ratio, and one claimed that he was able to decipher actual musical notes encoded into the image, resulting in so-called celestial music. And Peruvian engineer José Tonsmann, building on previous theories, claims to have discovered through digital image processing that images of figures, corresponding supposedly to Juan Diego and the Bishop Zumárraga, appear reflected in Mary’s eyes just as they would be in real human eyes.

The figures some see in Our Lady's eyes, with emphasis and color added, via  Infallible Catholic

The figures some see in Our Lady's eyes, with emphasis and color added, via Infallible Catholic

This cavalcade of supernatural claims does much to wear down one’s skepticism, but of course, there is good reason to consider the tilma’s origin story dubious and to hold all of these fantastical assertions suspect. First, the simple fact that Cortés and his Franciscans were actively seeking ways to encourage the conversion of the indigenous peoples and that the story that eventually emerged was strikingly similar and indeed directly connected to a Marian legend from Cortés’s home in the Extremadura region of Spain is suspicious in the extreme. There is still some controversy over the authorship of the Nican Mopohua, as well as debate over the embellishments and additions it may have seen through the years. In this context, the fact that the image appears to be that of a mestiza Mary might be seen as a purposeful manipulation on the part of ecclesiastical authorities to appeal to the native population of the newly established Mexico City, and to the mixed race generations to come. Moreover, a common effect of colonialism was something that has been called syncretism, when conquerors grafted their culture onto the existing culture. Some, for example, skeptic Brian Dunning, have pointed out that previous to Spanish conquest, Tepeyac Hill had been home to an Aztec temple to a virgin goddess called Tonantzin. Thus, when Cortés called for the destruction of Aztec temples and the raising of Catholic temples in their place, dedicating this site to a comparable figure might have made the pill a bit easier to swallow. And of course, Cortés would have thought of his own beloved Lady of Guadalupe.

Some, including Dunning, have even suggested that the farmer Juan Diego may have been a complete fabrication, as Archbishop Zumárraga, who wrote prolifically, did not leave a clear record of him or his miraculous tilma. In fact, there appears to be actual documentary evidence that the image was painted by a young native artist around 1555, as the following year, in sworn reports to the church authored by Franciscans who were concerned about the widespread worship of the image, which to some smacked of a reversion to paganism, they declared the image had been “painted yesteryear” by “the Indian painter Marcos,” referring to a known Aztec painter named Marcos Cipac de Aquinas, who had studied under Franciscans. In its omission of any mention of Juan Diego, this evidence indicates that even 25 years after the supposed apparition, the legend had yet to take its final shape. Nevertheless, the Catholic Church canonized Juan Diego as a saint in 2002, based in large part on the appearance of the Codex Escalada, a pictorial depiction of the Juan Diego legend rendered on deerskin and conveniently dated to indicate its historicity. As Dunning has pointed out, just the perfectly timed appearance of this artifact makes it entirely dubious.  

The Codex Escalada, via  Wikimedia Commons

The Codex Escalada, via Wikimedia Commons

Okay, a believer might protest, but what about the strange properties of the image itself. Well, yes, there are many, but can you trust the sources that tout them? In point of fact, much like the study of the Shroud of Turin, many choose to ignore scientific analyses that don’t agree with their conclusions. For example, another noted skeptic, Joe Nickell, has written at length about studies that have indeed detected evidence of craftsmanship and artistry in the image. One, for example, actually did find that there are indications of layers of paint after all and of brushstrokes, as infrared photography has revealed previous versions of the hands in different positions, and it is apparent that pigment was applied more heavily to areas where the ayate canvas had imperfections in the texture of its weave. As for the scientists that claimed there had been no imprimatur and could find no earthly equivalent for the pigments used… well, other studies have found that there does appear to have been a primer applied to the canvas and that the pigments were composed of common materials, such as pine soot. Most point to the work of Professors Smith and Callahan in confirming these implausible claims, yet they ignore other findings these same researchers published, such as that several elements of the image appear to have been added at a later date, such as the rays of the sun, the moon beneath Mary’s feet, and the star field pattern on her cloak. So much for the constellation patterns as viewed from space, and the sacred geometry and celestial music as well as the images in her eyes can very easily be explained as what happens when otherwise smart people stare for too long at something, searching for hidden meaning. Inevitably, they will find it.

And today, the legend of Our Lady of Guadalupe has moved from pious myth to fake news, as numerous hoax articles circulate online only to be debunked but rise again as some credulous blogger or another copies and pastes them. They frequently bring up some of the claims I’ve already addressed but then take it further, saying that NASA scientists have determined that the image is alive, that it holds a standard human body temperature of 98.6 degree Fahrenheit and that its pupils dilate in response to light. Clearly the bit about the eyes is a corruption of Tonsmann’s claims about the images he thinks he sees in them, but I have no idea where the body temperature stuff comes from. As for the appeal to the authority of NASA, this is a recurrent element I’ve seen in a lot of my research. I see some of Tonsmann’s digital image processing techniques compared to techniques used by NASA, and while that may be true, there is no indication that Tonsmann himself was ever associated with that agency, and in fact, while some sources call him simply an “engineer,” others admit he’s actually just an ophthalmologist! Then there are Professors Jody B. Smith and Philip Serna Callahan, who many sources say are both “experts on painting and members of NASA,” as though it’s a club. Well, first of all, I’m not sure why NASA would need experts on painting, but more to the point, none of my further research could confirm that either of them were associated with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Callahan’s obituary makes no mention of the organization, and by all indications his field of expertise was actually entemology, with research applications in agriculture. It looks like he may have had some experience in infrared radiation, but I see no indication of being an expert in painting. As for his partner in the study of the tilma, Jody B. Smith appears to have been “a professor of aesthetics and philosophy” at some unverified college in Pensacola called in most sources “College Pensacola,” which might be Pensacola State College, or maybe Pensacola Christian College…I don’t know. Now a Professor of Philosophy might know a bit more about paintings, but could hardly be called an expert and certainly could not have been an expert in infrared photography. So as far as I can tell, no one associated with NASA ever studied the tilma. Why would they? It has nothing to do with aeronautics and space, unless you’re trying to match up constellations to the stars painted on it.

Fake news post, via Snopes

Fake news post, via Snopes

In the end, compared to the Shroud of Turin, there is far more convincing evidence in this case that there is nothing supernatural about the Guadalupe tilma and the image on it. And unlike the shroud, which seems to become more genuinely mysterious the more one looks into it, the more closely that one scrutinizes the ayate of Juan Diego, the more one see things that aren’t really there.

The Turin Shroud: Divine Likeness or Bogus Relic?


On the third day of the 1898 public exhibition of the Shroud of Turin, Secondo Pia was in his darkroom, developing the plates of the first photographs of the sacred object. The king himself had asked Pia, an amateur photographer and the mayor of a small town, to come and capture an image of the shroud during this commemoration of the Italian constitution’s signing. He had set up bright arc lights to illuminate the object, an ivory-colored linen 3.5 feet wide and 14.5 feet long with symmetrical patterns where it had been burned and water-stained while folded, like a Rorschach inkblot, and he had dutifully photographed it while clergymen looked suspiciously on, worried that somehow he would damage the fragile fabric. Now, in the red light of his darkroom, as he bathed the photo-sensitive printing plate of his photograph in developing solution and the image began to appear, he found himself shocked and elated, for there on the negative was a clear image of a man captured in the cloth.

Now, the image of a man was actually something he expected to see, something he had already seen with his naked eye, for the Shroud of Turin had long been venerated as the burial shroud of Christ because of that very image—a bearded, long-haired man, naked, his arms crossed in front of him, with what appeared to be dark bloodstains corresponding to the wounds of Christ. The history of the shroud and its veneration could be traced all the way back to Lirey, France, where in 1453 Margaret deCharny, who had been exhibiting it as a great relic that had come into her family’s possession, traded it to the House of Savoy in exchange for a castle. Thereafter, the cult of its veneration established itself in a chapel at Chambéry before it was transferred among several Italian and French cities for decades, exhibited occasionally around Easter. In 1532, a fire in the chapel at Chambéry damaged the shroud, which was doused with water to extinguish the flames, leaving the marks visible on it even today. Nuns made some repairs by patching sections, and after that, the shroud settled in Turin, where it had remained for most of its years, exhibited less and less frequently, until its 1898 exhibition. 

What Secondo Pia discovered that year in photographing it, therefore, was not that the image was present in the cloth, but rather that, in his negative, it was far more distinct, with greater detail than any had previously imagined. The reason for this was that his negative showed the image as a positive, which meant the image in the cloth was itself a negative, something that thinkers of that era, and even those today, struggled to explain. At first, Pia and his development process came under scrutiny, with many suggesting that he had altered or touched up his photo, something he vehemently denied.

The image in the shroud (left), itself a negative, and a negative of the image (right), itself a positive, via Wikimedia Commons

The image in the shroud (left), itself a negative, and a negative of the image (right), itself a positive, via Wikimedia Commons

With the discovery and the controversy, of course, came fame, and soon the whole world—including skeptics, agnostics, atheists, and scientists—were looking very closely at the shroud. One of these, an anatomist and zoologist faculty member of the Sorbonne, Yves Delage, encouraged a young staffer at his biology magazine to investigate the shroud. This staffer, a Catholic biologist and painter named Paul Vignon, threw himself into the work, closely examining the Pia negative and searching for some natural explanation of the image. What he found convinced many, including his boss, Delage, that this truly was the burial shroud of the historical Christ.

The image revealed in the negative depicted with far more exactitude wounds that agreed almost perfectly with biblical accounts of the crucifixion. The man showed wounds that might indicate being nailed to a cross, and though the feet were only visible on the second image, which offered a back view of the corpse, it could be seen that the feet were crossed as though they had been nailed together. Moreover, the expanded and raised rib cage, as well as other aspects of the anatomy, indicate a struggle to breathe because of arms being raised, and the blood stains from the hand wounds appear to have flowed from wrist to elbow, which can only be explained if the hands had been raised while bleeding and then afterward been forced down to their crossed position—which itself would have damaged the body once rigor mortis set it, and some have pointed to what seems to be a dislocation of one shoulder for confirmation of this. But the correspondence does not cease there. In Pia’s image, clear marks from lashes can be seen, as well as injuries on the back and shoulders as from carrying a large and heavy beam and on the knees from having fallen, all conforming to the story of his forced march to Golgotha carrying his cross, even down to the detail that the lash marks on his back appear less distinct than those on his front, indicating a garment had been thrown over his shoulders before he carried his burden and agreeing again with the details of the Bible. Then there was the swelling of his cheeks, which fit with the detail of his being struck in the face, and of course, the wound in his side. Really the only details that didn’t perfectly match were that the wounds, presumably from nails, were in his wrists rather than his palms, which at the time was where most believed Christ had been pierced, and the lacerations on his head as from thorns were not simply around his brow, but over his entire scalp, as though a whole hat of thorns had been employed. But these are details that others would eventually confirm as being even more historically accurate than a forger might have known, for a nail in the wrist, in what has come to be known as Destot’s Space between the tendons, would actually have been necessary to support the weight of those crucified, and a “crown” of thorns, in that region and era, would likely have been more of a full-headed cap than a wreath.

Detail of the hands and forearms showing the wound in Destot's Space and the direction of the blood flow, via  The Epistle

Detail of the hands and forearms showing the wound in Destot's Space and the direction of the blood flow, via The Epistle

Regardless of the anatomical and historical accuracy of the wounds, though, Vignon wanted to find some explanation for how the image had been made, especially in its seemingly miraculous form as the negative of an image that would not be revealed in all its particulars until the development of photography. First, he ruled out paint, as that would have cracked and flaked off the often rolled and folded shroud long ago. Next, he ruled out a dye-job as dyes could not have produced the effect of a negative image and would appear the same whether as a negative or a positive. Therefore, it must have been formed by pressing the cloth directly to a body, a process he then tried to reproduce with a chalk impression. While this did produce a negative image, that image was distorted from the linen being pressed around a three-dimensional face; therefore this process was ruled out as well. Only one technique appeared to hold up in the end: that of a vaporograph, wherein the rising of vapors and a chemical reaction created a negative impression in the cloth. According to Vignon’s final theory, which bore out under experimentation, the shroud had been spread with a balm of aloes and myrrh mixed in olive oil, which became oxidized and stained the cloth brown when the body’s sweat, rich in urea after its torturous ordeal, fermented into an ammoniac vapor. A complicated explanation, but one that could be in some ways reproduced and at the very least did not rely on notions of holy radiance. Nevertheless, some hints at miraculous goings-on remained, for the body could not have long stayed in the shroud without its putrefaction staining the fabric, of which stains there were no signs. Furthermore, Vignon could not account for how the blood stains, which seemed so perfectly formed, had not been disturbed when the shroud had been removed. Did these remaining mysteries hint at resurrection?

Regardless of these persisting questions, Vignon’s employer, Delage, was so taken by the research that he presented it at the French Academy to much approval. However, the atheist secretary of the Academy worked against the theory for seemingly personal reasons, refusing a vote of confidence and censoring the paper to remove mention of Christ. Then a French priest and historian known for discrediting relics weighed in with a discovery of his own. He traced the shroud to its furthest historical appearance to debunk it. The shroud had first appeared in Lirey, France, in 1354 at the castle of a knight of the Crusades, one Geoffrey deCharny—forefather of the Margaret deCharny who would eventually sell it to the Savoys. This relic-debunking priest had come across a document from 1389, the D’Arcis Memorandum, in which a Bishop D’Arcis, upset about the Crusader knight’s son displaying the object as Christ’s burial shroud, claimed he had previously investigated it and “discovered the fraud and how the said cloth had been cunningly painted, the truth being attested by the artist who had painted it, to wit, that it was a work of human skill and not miraculously wrought or bestowed….” After this bombshell, for the veracity of which there was no further evidence, not even the name of the supposed forger, the Shroud of Turin was buried, as it were, in disrepute and obscurity.

The D'Arcis Memorandum, via the  Turin Shroud Encyclopedia

The D'Arcis Memorandum, via the Turin Shroud Encyclopedia

In the 1930s it was exhibited again, and again it was photographed. This time, the pictures were taken by a professional photographer, though still with the darkroom help of Secondo Pia, who is said to have exclaimed, “It’s the same!” when the image appeared. This time, with advances in photography being what they were, the image was even clearer, and to avoid similar accusations of chicanery, they invited numerous professional photographers to examine their plates and attest that they’d not been retouched.

Thus one doubt was finally laid to rest, but then so was the shroud, and with the second world war and the dubious inquiries of Nazis to have access to the shroud, it became necessary to bury it even further. The shroud was spirited away to a Benedictine monastery south of Rome, where it was hidden beneath the altar and, if worse came to worst, the monks could secret it away in a cave.

Eventually, it would be brought home to Turin, but during its long absence, it remained at the forefront of many people’s minds. Through these decades, researchers into the shroud remained actively investigating, now using the new and better photographs, which included close-ups of specific portions of the shroud. The study of the relic became a scholarly field unto itself, with a noun coined: sindonology, from the Greek sindon, meaning linen or linen covering. These sindonologists came from almost every field of research and ranged from staunch believers to cynical doubters and every position in between. In 1950, these seekers held the first of many congresses, international conferences at which all kinds of new theories might be put forward and old theories revisited and revised. To give an idea of the kind of work a sindonologist might perform, consider Dr. Pierre Barbet, who, intrigued by the anatomical accuracy discernible in the new photos of the shroud, used his access to cadavers to experiment with crucifixion and its effects. It was Barbet who discovered, during the course of his many morbid experiments, literally crucifying corpses in his laboratory, that driving nails through the Destot’s Space, between the tendons at the wrist, was not only feasible as a means of suspending men on the cross, but was actually necessary to support their weight as victims remained up there, pulling themselves upward by those nails in order to breathe. Moreover, he discovered that driving a nail into that place caused the thumb to draw inward, which just so happened to be another detail of the image on the shroud.

A cadaver crucified by Dr. Barbet, via  Mad Scientist Blog

A cadaver crucified by Dr. Barbet, via Mad Scientist Blog

One major project of sindonologists has always been to put together a more complete history of the shroud, for if its passage through time could be confirmed all the way back to Christ, then there would be little more to argue about. The problem was that no history existed before its appearance in France in the 1350s, and even then there existed a variety of cloths venerated as the burial shrouds of Jesus. Sindonologists made a striking connection when they began to notice that many famous depictions of Christ appeared to match the face in the shroud, such that it seemed many were copies of it. Tracing these similar icons led Paul Vignon, the original sindonologist, to a very early supposed image of Christ called the Mandylion, or the Image of Edessa, as it had been discovered in Edessa, in Mesopotamia, in 544 CE. The image, supposed in legend to have been given to a king Abgar V by Jesus himself, was only of Christ’s face. As the legend went, a gravely ill King Abgar sent for the miracle-worker Jesus, and Jesus, instead of coming in person, wiped his face on a cloth, leaving a miraculous image, and sent that to Abgar, a gift that healed him. The Mandylion, a Greek word for veil or cloth, ended up in Constantinople by 944 CE, where it was revered until Crusaders sacked the city in 1204. Now sindonologists have pored over ancient manuscripts listing the city’s treasures and contemporary descriptions of the Mandylion itself to suggest that, in fact, it was the shroud that would eventually turn up in Lirey. They point to some accounts that call it a shroud, and others that indicate it might have had an image of Christ’s entire body, not just his face, and still others that point out it had been “doubled in four,” which if one were to do to the Shroud of Turin, one would end up with just the image of the face on top. Critics of this theory point out, however, that in many of these documents, a shroud of Christ is mentioned as a separate treasure from the Mandylion.

And there remains the question of where this Mandylion or shroud had been in the hundred and fifty years between the sack of Constantinople and its appearance in France. The explanation, for some sindonologists, was the Knights Templar, present at the taking of Constantinople and known for hoarding treasures and relics. Indeed, one of the last Templars burned at the stake was one Geoffrey deCharnay, a name close enough to deCharny that it seems reasonable to assume he was a progenitor of the family that formerly owned the shroud. And some have even suggested that the idol the Templars were accused of worshiping, an image sometimes described as a bearded man and called Baphomet, which I discussed at some length in episode 13, was actually the shroud of Christ. But this is all conjecture, of course. Further scientific advancements in the study of the shroud would not arrive until that wonderful decade, the 1980s.

Abgar receiving the Mandylion, via  WIkimedia Commons

Abgar receiving the Mandylion, via WIkimedia Commons

In the 1970s, a secret commission formed to advise the church on matters of preserving the shroud and allowing for scientific testing. Under their auspices, scientists have had further access to the shroud, including samples for study. From one such sample, pollens specific to certain regions were extracted that proved the shroud had been exposed to air in Palestine, Turkey, and Europe, which veritably traces the path from Christ’s burial, to Constantinople, to France. In 1982, a group of scientists formed STURP, the Shroud of Turin Research Project, and using microscopy and computer image analysis, they confirmed that the dark marks on the shroud were indeed human blood.

Then the moment of truth: Carbon-14 dating. The test had long been proposed, but whether the church was concerned about damaging the shroud or revealing it as inauthentic, it had always been denied. In 1988, however, a small portion of the shroud from its bottom left corner, away from the image itself, was divided among scientists at the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, Oxford University, and the University of Arizona. With 95% certainty, each lab independently confirmed the age of the cloth to be between 728-608 years, which placed its origins squarely in the Middle Ages, between 1260 and 1380 CE. This effectively shut down the entire debate, making of the shroud a medieval forgery. Time magazine said it had been debunked. The New York Times called it a fraud. And one might think this to be the end of the Turin Shroud…but sindonologists are a resilient and ingenious bunch. That same year, they began to cast doubt on the Radio Carbon dating, protesting that the fire it had survived in the 1500s must have altered its carbon content, not to mention the fact of the likely chemical reactions that had originally taken place in the cloth to form the image. And besides, scientific analysis had proven that the image contained three-dimensional data, which had been modeled on computers, and therefore could not have been made by even the most talented of artists. What did that leave then? The idea that some medieval ascetic had reenacted the passion, including coincidentally historically accurate details they didn’t have at the time, such as the position of the nails in the wrist, and followed burial practices that inadvertently resulted in the vapography of the image? Or perhaps the sample that had been dated was itself suspect. One sindolonogist went so far as to claim, without evidence, that a secret carbon testing had been performed on an adjacent sample that had been dated to much earlier…so…obviously they had to test it again.

This undermining of the Carbon-14 results has continued to modern day, with accusations that the piece tested had actually been a patch added in the Middle Ages. Of course, there had been patches, after the fire, but those were clearly visible. These had been imperceptible, critics of the carbon dating claimed, because of a technique called “invisible reweaving.” Interestingly, one proponent of this theory published a paper in which he claimed to have tested the remnants of the sample used for carbon testing and had detected dye in it, proving the patch had been disguised to match the rest of the shroud. As noted skeptic Joe Nickell pointed out, it was odd to point to the presence of dyes as proof the shroud is authentic, since that proposition relies in large part on the cloth not containing pigments added by man, but regardless, the claims appeared to be wholly false, since the samples tested by the three laboratories in 1988 had been entirely destroyed in the dating process. And Nickell’s criticisms have since been proven sound in a publication of the same journal that had printed the spurious claims. Moreover, as for the notion of pigments having been added, testing has indeed revealed that iron oxide, an ingredient in ancient paints, is present on the cloth. However, sindonologists protest that these particles may actually be blood that has broken off and been spread around the cloth, or that, if it is indeed paint, then there has been cross-contamination from the paintings hung in the many cathedrals where the shroud has been exhibited over the years.

Even just last year, we had yet further developments, on both sides of the argument. First, although it has been proven that human blood is present in the dark stains, it has now also been proven that reddish pigments have been added, as though to touch up those stains, indicating that some form of artistry has been wrought upon the shroud. Then a development that seems more in favor of the notion that the Turin Shroud is the true shroud of Christ, or at least that it’s not a painting, came when a study claimed that the iron particles, rather than indicating paint, actually derive from the blood of an individual who endured great trauma.

So what are we to come away with? What are we to think? To say that it’s shrouded in mystery would be a bad pun and something of a cliché. But it is true. Here we see very clearly the age-old struggle between rationalism and faith writ large. What you see when you look at the Turin Shroud may depend entirely, in the end, on what you see when you close your eyes and think on the greatest mystery of life.

Blind Spot: The Great Los Angeles Air Raid and the Secret Memos of Majestic 12

unretouched air raid.jpg

At a little after three in the morning on February 25th, 1942, the height of World War II, anti-aircraft batteries stationed around defense plants on the coast of California began firing and didn’t let up for almost an hour, discharging 1,433 explosive shells. This incident had its beginnings the previous day, when naval intelligence had warned that an attack might be expected sometime during the next 10 hours. Expectation turned to official alert after blinking lights and flares were spotted near defense plants, but eventually the alert was rescinded. Then, in the early morning of the 25th, radar picked up something 120 miles off coast headed toward Los Angeles. At 2:15 a.m., artillery batteries readied themselves to fire, and at 2:21 a.m., with the object closing the distance to only a few miles, L.A. went into a blackout. If this was an air raid, they were not about to light up targets for enemy bombers.

Strangely, the object then disappeared from radar, but a number of reports of aircraft had artillerymen on edge, and a sighting of a balloon with a red flare over Santa Monica caused some batteries to open fire. After that, the skies were filled with bursting shells and smoke, and the city came awake to the “ACK-ACK” sound of heavy ordnance shattering the quiet night. No one was thinking straight; they turned on their lights despite the blackout, and they went out of doors to search the skies. Some claimed to see swarms of planes moving at high speeds, while others saw slow moving balloons. The artillery men, meanwhile, searched the maelstrom above for their UFO target, and believing they saw it, fired… only to find their shells had no effect on whatever it was they thought they had seen.

Nevertheless, destruction did ensue, below if not above. There were five deaths and numerous injuries, and reports indicated that the wreckage of downed aircraft had fallen into the streets. Within an hour, the artillery fire relented, and eventually, by the light of dawn, the devastation could be surveyed. But that bright morning light showed something unexpected. There had been no downed enemy planes, only fallen shells. Deaths had been from car crashes—people driving in a blackout with their eyes on the sky instead of the road—and one from a heart attack in the panic. Most injuries were the same, clumsy accidents during the blackout: air raid wardens falling off roofs, policemen breaking the glass of bright storefronts to extinguish lights, radio announcers running smack into buildings in their excitement.

A police officer reaching into a hole caused by a dud that fell in Santa Monica, via the  Los Angeles Times

A police officer reaching into a hole caused by a dud that fell in Santa Monica, via the Los Angeles Times

When all was said and done, evaluations of the incident varied wildly. The Navy came to the conclusion that there had been no aircraft or any other objects over the city that morning, attributing the entire episode to rattled nerves in wartime. Listeners may liken this to the recent scare experienced by Hawaiians when they received a warning of an incoming missile that didn’t actually exist. During that terror-filled time before the alert was withdrawn, most assumed the missile had been launched by North Korea after all the recent juvenile posturing between our leaders. In the same way, in Los Angeles during Word War II, fears of attack were profound and paranoia was running high, so there is certainly a case for this explanation. To illustrate the paranoia that had gripped the nation, not even a week earlier, President Roosevelt had signed an executive order allowing the Secretary of War and other commanders to designate military areas, from which any individuals deemed to be threats to national security might be excluded—an infamous decision that led to the internment of Japanese-, German-, and Italian-Americans in concentration camps. Indeed, during the supposed air raid itself, the sheriff actually detained Japanese gardeners on suspicion of signaling enemy aircraft. And the fact that naval intelligence had alerted coastal personnel to the possibility of an imminent attack on the 24th also supports the war nerves theory. Everyone was expecting something to happen that night, and for good reason, as the day before, in response to a Presidential speech, a Japanese submarine had surfaced off the coast north of Santa Barbara and shelled an oil refinery. This act of provocation had caused some Japanese-Americans to predict an imminent attack on L.A., perhaps setting the entire chain of imagined events into motion. While insisting there had been no attack, Frank Knox, the Secretary of the Navy, did indicate that the threat of just such an air raid remained very real, prompting him to recommend moving industries vital to the war effort inland. This has since led to conspiracy theories that the entire episode had been staged to demonstrate a credible threat and make clear the need to move defense plants away from the coasts, but this proposition doesn’t withstand scrutiny as no further proof of a threat was needed. A Japanese raider surfacing off our shores and shelling a gasoline plant important to the military surely would have been evidence enough that coastal targets were vulnerable.

Japanese propaganda depicting the shelling of near Santa Barbara, via  California State Military Museums

Japanese propaganda depicting the shelling of near Santa Barbara, via California State Military Museums

Then the War Department weighed in, reporting to the President—perhaps to save face or perhaps in earnest consideration of eyewitness testimony—that there had indeed been unidentified planes over L.A. on the morning of the 25th. Then why had they dropped no bombs, and why had some been reported to travel at slow speeds? Why, because they must’ve been commercial aircraft flown by foreign agents for the purposes of reconnaissance. Then where had these flights originated? Well, perhaps the enemy had a secret airbase in Mexico… or perhaps they had developed a submarine capable of functioning as an aircraft carrier. Now, for the Secretary of War to suggest this, we must have had intelligence regarding such vessels, as the Japanese were indeed developing a submarine aircraft carrier, but they didn’t go into production until 1943 and weren’t completed until 1945, which rules out the possibility that they lay offshore of L.A. that night, launching bombers into the sky. That left the theory of a secret Mexican airbase, which common sense tells us can’t be true, as no further air raids were ever scrambled from this theoretical installation, and if it existed, the Japanese surely would have used it to full advantage before the end of the war.

Regardless of the embarrassingly public suggestion that the entire incident had been a case of nervous trigger fingers and mass hysteria, the atmosphere of paranoia persisted and even grew worse. Within a month, Japanese internment was being enforced. After the war, not surprisingly, the Japanese insisted they had flown no planes over L.A., and the fact that they had proudly owned other attacks, including Pearl Harbor and the shelling near Santa Barbara, leads one to believe them. Eventually, in the 1980s, the U.S. government would offer a third and rather familiar explanation: a weather balloon had touched off the panic, very much the same as it had at Roswell, New Mexico five years later.  But the 80s would see yet another explanation for the so-called Great Los Angeles Air Raid, and this one would better capture the public imagination. That explanation: extraterrestrial spacecraft.

An ostensibly secret document purporting to brief President-Elect Eisenhower on the existence of a Top Secret intelligence and R&D group known as Majestic 12, via  Wikimedia Commons

An ostensibly secret document purporting to brief President-Elect Eisenhower on the existence of a Top Secret intelligence and R&D group known as Majestic 12, via Wikimedia Commons

In late 1984, a television producer, Jaime Shandera, received an anonymous brown paper package that contained a roll of 35mm film. This film contained images of official-looking documents that appeared to reveal some extraordinary things: namely the existence of a committee called the Majestic 12 tasked by President Truman with investigating and covering up UFO incidents like the crash at Roswell, recovering and exploiting extraterrestrial technology, and advising the President on how to engage with ETs. Jaime Shandera, the television producer who received them, happened to be friends with ufologists, and instead of going public, he shared it with them. These documents were held close to the vest, and only revealed in small pieces, making the rounds among other ufologists until, in reaction to the intentions of competing ufologists to publish portions of the Majestic 12 papers, Bill Moore and Stanton Friedman, the ufologist friends of Shandera who had all the papers, went public with them as well as with their further research. They had turned up a memo in the National Archives that mentioned Operation Majestic Twelve, seeming to confirm the authenticity of the papers.

Among the many Majestic 12 documents that came out in this time was a memo supposedly written by General George Marshall, head of the armed forces, to President Roosevelt claiming that after the Great Los Angeles Air Raid, two unconventional aircraft were recovered. The document shared the determination that the craft were “not earthly” and probably “of interplanetary origin.” Ever since this time, the Los Angeles air raid has become the Battle of Los Angeles and is now synonymous with UFOs and aliens. A cursory search of the Internet pulls up numerous examinations of the famous photograph from that night, with searchlights trained on one spot in the sky, running it through different filters and enhancements to reveal that a domed saucer can be seen caught in the spotlights.

The only problem is, that photograph has been altered from the original. And the Majestic 12 documents were long ago systematically debunked.

The retouched photo that sparked much speculation among UFO enthusiasts, via the  Los Angeles Times

The retouched photo that sparked much speculation among UFO enthusiasts, via the Los Angeles Times

The simple fact that their recipient, television producer Jaime Shandera, was associated with ufologists and contacted them immediately, before he had even developed the film, throws doubt on the documents from the beginning. Then there is the fact that the memo discovered in the National Archives that seemed to authenticate the papers was shown to have been a planted forgery; it showed signs of having been folded and so perhaps carried into the archives in a pocket, it lacked official stamps and watermarks that would have proven it legitimate, it had typewriter-key impressions showing that it was an original rather than the carbon copy it was intended to look like, and its contents described a meeting between President Eisenhower and National Security Advisor Robert Cutler that couldn’t have taken place in that Eisenhower’s appointment books, which recorded even top secret meetings, don’t show it, and Robert Cutler is confirmed to have been out of the country at the time. Most of the work of debunking the Majestic 12 mythos has been done by noted skeptic Phillip J. Klass. His coup de grace, it seems to me, came when he uncovered the fact that one of Shandera’s ufologist friends, Bill Moore, had actually spoken previously about his plans to forge top secret documents to encourage those with real knowledge to come forward. Klass also showed through document analysis that in one case, President Truman’s signature had been cut from a photocopy of a known document and simply pasted onto the forgery. Then through forensic linguistics, he proved that Moore himself had authored at least some of the forgeries, contrasting a date format that appeared on MJ-12 documents with the date format customarily used in military documents of the time and comparing it more favorably with the way Bill Moore had written dates on other documents. Overall, it is hard to take any of the Majestic 12 documents seriously, including the Marshall-Roosevelt memo that indicates an extraterrestrial angle on the Great Los Angeles Air Raid. And in the end, just as during the blackout of that panic-stricken morning, when the spotlights searched the sky blindly only to find roiling clouds of smoke that obscured whatever might be up there, when we look back on the Great Los Angeles Air Raid, we are peering into a blind spot hopelessly shrouded in hoaxes and conflicting information.  

A Brief History of Unidentified Aerial Phenomena


Today’s topic was one that my patrons on Patreon expressed interest in hearing. I understand if it’s not for everyone--if it seems too out there, as it were--but trust that I’ll be approaching it with the same spirit of logic and balanced skepticism that I always try to bring to my topics. 


This time, I'll be broaching an extraordinary topic that, surprisingly, has been in the news recently. On December 16th, less than two months ago, a remarkable article appeared in the New York Times that may have flown right by many people, if you’ll excuse the pun. It was remarkable—and perhaps easy to ignore for many, whose news consumption these days is understandably monopolized by our ongoing political chaos—because it was about UFOs. Its title was “Glowing Auras and ‘Black Money’: The Pentagon’s Mysterious U.F.O. Program,” and essentially it revealed that since 2007, there has been in existence a top secret operation designated the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program, or AATIP (perhaps an acronym pronounced a-tip and certainly an atypical program, if you’ll excuse another pun). This program, funded at different times by the Pentagon (and therefore taxpayers) and by private groups, has been investigating UFOs, or as some scientific researchers call it, UAP (unidentified aerial phenomena, a term that indicates the fact that, while we are dealing with witnesses seeing or believing they have seen something that appears to be in the air, we don’t actually know whether they are physical objects in flight). The Times article, however, includes some startling video of encounters between Navy jets and genuine UFOs—startling in that, being captured on radar, they do indeed appear to be…something… and their appearance and behavior doesn’t correspond with known aircraft or natural phenomena. Not wanting to jump to the extra-terrestrial hypothesis, which might sully their reputation in the eyes of many, the Times instead quotes an MIT astrophysicist about the need to study unexplained phenomena but also cautioning that we reserve judgment on its origin and nature, as well as a former NASA engineer and UFO debunker who suggests there may be a variety of prosaic explanations for the sightings investigated by AATIP.

While debunkers are already poo-pooing this development, many in the UFO or UAP research community have expressed great excitement that these may be the first stirrings of a long-awaited event called “Disclosure,” or the official revelation by government that we have been visited by extra-terrestrials. Indeed, there are many in the podcast community, and some fellow Dark Myths podcasters especially, that have been discussing this a great deal, their reactions ranging from pessimistic doubt, to cautious interest and even outright anticipatory glee. For a taste of some of the variety of reaction to this Times piece, check out recent episodes from Astonishing Legends and Not Alone, both of which feature UAP authority Rob Kristoffersen of the Our Strange Skies podcast.

In order to give readers some historical context for the phenomenon of people reporting unusual goings-on in the heavens, I will be doing a run-down of sorts intended to demonstrate that the study of strange sights in the sky should not be considered kooky but rather, taking into account the long history of the phenomenon, should be thought of as a valid scientific undertaking, to say nothing of the prudence of looking into the matter as an evaluation of threats from above. 


Many people only look as far back as 1947 for the beginning of the era of UFO phenomenon. That year, in the state of Washington in the northwestern united states, an experienced search and rescue pilot by the name of Kenneth Arnold witnessed what would be the first sensational and widely reported UFO sighting of the modern era. 

Kenneth Arnold was a college educated family man, a skilled pilot with over 9,000 hours in the air, over 4,000 in high altitudes among mountains, and by all accounts a trustworthy and serious man. In June of 1947, returning from a business trip with clear skies, he flew in his little two-seat monoplane near Mt. Rainier hoping to catch sight of a recently crashed U.S. Marine transport, and when he landed in Yakima, he had a crazy story to share with his friend, the airport manager. He claimed to have seen flashing lights that at first he took for reflections on his windows, but after rocking his plane and fiddling with his goggles, he realized they were aircraft. There were 9 of them, flying in formation and passing in front of Mt. Rainier, dark against the snow on its slopes, but they did not look like any aircraft he knew. He thought they must have been some kind of new military craft on a test flight, but it gave him such an eerie feeling that he felt he had to share it. Soon his story spread, and he was talking to reporters. The whole thing basically went viral, and Arnold’s comparison of the crafts to pie pans and saucers led to a very catchy term that spread through the papers like wildfire: flying saucers. The next month, in Roswell, New Mexico, something described as a flying disc crashed. The military said it was a weather balloon, and claiming there had been no military test flights around Mt. Rainier a month earlier, they speculated that Arnold had just seen a mirage, but it was too late. There was a full-blown UFO flap on, with hundreds of similar sightings, and for decades, most UFO sightings involved disc-shaped objects, flying saucers just like Kenneth Arnold’s, but strangely, Arnold claimed he had never described them as saucer-like in shape.

Kenneth Arnold and his boomerang-like UFOs, via  Wikipedia

Kenneth Arnold and his boomerang-like UFOs, via Wikipedia

Kenneth Arnold did describe the crafts he’d seen by comparing them to discs, but only on one side, for he explained that they were more like a crescent or a semicircle, “like a pie plate cut in half.” And he did compare them to a saucer, but only to describe their erratic motion, saying they moved the way a saucer skips across water. Nevertheless, the term flying saucer struck one reporter’s ear just right, and that’s what was transmitted to the world. And it is indeed puzzling that, even though Arnold hadn’t seen a disc, most sightings after this were discs. One explanation for this discrepancy is what is called in ufology the psychosocial hypothesis. Martin Kottmeyer in 1988 suggested that the fact the shape had been misreported as a saucer and then that the majority of sightings thereafter were of saucers proves that the entire phenomenon is cultural in nature. Moreover, this psychosocial hypothesis was able to explain something problematic in ufology, namely the phenomenon of flaps or waves of sightings. It didn’t make sense that extra-terrestrials would visit lots of places in bursts then disappear, unless they just came around when Mar was closer in its orbit, but astronomers ruled this out. However, if you thought about one sighting setting off the others, whether they were hoaxes or mistakes or hallucinations or psychological manifestations of a cultural phenomenon, then UFO flaps could be explained.

Of course, this explanation fails to account for sightings with evidence, such as those reported in the Times article, with radar and video records of strange objects in the sky. These can often be dismissed as secret military aircraft or drones, or in an earlier era, as weather balloons, of course. And this is similar to previous explanations that they were simply unidentified airplanes piloted by private citizens or perhaps foreign agents, or during the late 19th century wave of airship sightings, that they were just that: dirigibles piloted by men on unadvertised flights. Perhaps no one was aware of the flight plans of these crafts or who crewed them, but that did not make them extraterrestrial or even extraordinary.

I’ll have more to say about the Mystery Airships, but that is for another episode. For the purposes of this brief prehistory, it is more important look further back, when unidentified aerial phenomena cannot be blamed on manmade aircraft, in order to show that the UFO is by no means a historically discrete phenomena or an invention of the 20th century. Long before Kenneth Arnold’s flying half-saucers, back all the way at the furthest edge of recorded history even, we find remarkably familiar sounding reports of strange sightings in the sky. We will find that these “celestial wonders” or “prodigies,” as they were usually called, were most often interpreted as miracles with religious connotations, as signs from a god or gods. This is simply an example of the way people interpret phenomena through the lens of their worldview. From a modern perspective, many of these sightings from antiquity through the early 19th century will likely be dismissed as astronomical or meteorological events—shooting stars, meteor showers, ball lightning and whatnot. But might not this also be an example of people interpreting phenomena through the lens of their worldview. There are a great many such sightings, 500 in fact, all compiled by Jacques Vallee and Chris Aubeck in my principal source, Wonders in the Sky: Unexplained Aerial Objects from Antiquity to Modern Times. And while some of the reports may seem easily explained with a flippant gesture and mention of weather or comets, there are others that are not. It’s these, the most interesting to me, I have chosen to feature here.

We shall start with Ancient Egypt, where text discovered by archeologists on a monument to the conquests of Thutmosis III describes a star that descended in 1460 BCE, in Lebanon, to strike his enemies, the Nubians, spooking their horses and positioning itself above to illuminate their faces with fire. Now this account could easily be dismissed as a fabrication mythologizing the power and majesty of this conqueror, but if we meet the report on its own terms, it represents the record of an unidentified aerial light that appears to have been directed by an intelligence that chose sides in a battle, coming to the aid of one army in opposition to another.  Then, according to inscriptions on another monument, Pharoah Akhenaton was out for a walk by the river in 1347 BCE when a “shining disc” descended and communicated with him, directing him to found a new Egyptian capital, and Akhenaton did so, going even further to establish a religion worshipping the so-called Solar Disc. Here again, the report could easily be disregarded as religious claptrap or perhaps just as a mystical visionary experience, but if we take it at face value, we are hard-pressed to explain what was reported as a natural phenomenon.

Akhenaton worshiping the Solar Disc, via  Wikimedia Commons

Akhenaton worshiping the Solar Disc, via Wikimedia Commons

There are as well some passages of the Bible that describe strange aerial phenomena in association with what might today be termed abductions. In 2 Kings, we have the story of Elijah the Tishbite, the only biblical prophet who never died, as he was taken up by a whirlwind to climb aboard a chariot of fire. And in Ezekiel, we have a vivid account of strange, winged, multi-faced visitors and objects described as “wheels within wheels” that rumbled like an earthquake. During the course of this encounter, Ezekiel was miraculously transported to a mountaintop. Now perhaps these accounts were influenced, as has been suggested of many miraculous visions in the Bible, by hallucination, maybe due to ergotism--which we discussed in Episode  4: The Dancing Plague—or maybe due to the unknowing consumption of some other hallucinogenic substance, or perhaps these visions were experienced during epileptic seizures. Then there is the possibility that these books and other such scriptural accounts of anomalous phenomena were actually written years later by scribes who embellished previous accounts. We don’t know, and so we take the descriptions as they come to us. As we continue in our survey of anomalous history, though, we may begin to ask whether all of these sightings can be so easily explained away.

In Ancient Rome, a variety of similar “prodigies” were recorded for posterity. In the 3rd century BCE, there are reports of ships (as in seagoing vessels) and other objects, some described as round, appearing in the sky, and men in white clothing, like clergymen, standing atop them. There are also reports from the same century, and well into the next, of lights in the sky that were thought to be secondary suns or additional moons, implying that they remained stationary and were of great size. And at the end of the second and beginning of the first century BCE, reports indicate more than mere lights, with descriptions of what sounds like aerial conflict, witnesses claiming they saw flaming spears and flying shields that moved in different directions before clashing together in what appeared to be battle.

Into the Common Era then, and for several centuries we continue to find sporadic reports of torches and globes of light in the sky and objects compared to burning pillars or flying chariots above not only Italy but the Mid-East and the far East, with multiple sightings in Japan and China as well, where phenomena sighted in the skies were often identified as dragons. Whereas, when we look to Northern Europe, and the anomalous phenomena preserved in their records, we begin to see a recurring theme with the reporting of shields in the sky, doing battle. Specifically Medieval Ireland offers some reports of interest. In 698, according to a manuscript transcribed in the 17th century, three shields of different colors were seen not just in flight but “as it were warring from the east to the west.” Less than a century later, also in Ireland, 15th century annals chronicle sightings of aerial ships on which were seen actual crew members. These reports seem to correspond with others in Europe, specifically in France during the reign of Pepin the Short, when apparently many ships, with full complements of crew members, had been seen aloft in the skies. These accounts have doubt cast on them because they appear nearly a thousand years later, but there do exist contemporary accounts that confirm the people of France in that era believed in ships that sailed the clouds and the men who sailed them. 

In one of his many treatises, St. Agobard, a Spanish priest and archbishop of Lyons in the 800s, described a common belief that France received visits from a race of men who piloted airships coming out of a mysterious land called Magonia. Agobard scoffed at these beliefs, which actually went hand in hand with another bizarre notion: that when terrible weather occurred, it was often literally raised by weather wizards. This idea had a long history even then, and it asserted that certain men called Tempestaires or Tempestarii could, by means of sorcery, call forth storms and floods upon the land. This they did for the purpose of selling the fruit that had fallen from the trees during the foul weather as well as the livestock that was killed by the floods and storms. And it was to the airship navigators of Magonia that these Tempestaires sold their ill-gotten goods, creating a kind of black market economy between thieving sorcerers and extra-terrestrials. St. Agobard shared one particular story that was especially troubling, in which some townsfolk held a meeting about stoning four prisoners, three men and a woman who had been chained up and captive for days. They claimed the prisoners had fallen off of a Magonian cloudship. It’s unclear whether they believed these captives to be Magonians who had tumbled overboard or Tempestaires who had only been aboard the ship to conduct their underhanded commerce. Regardless, it seemed being either was enough to warrant execution in their minds. As for Agobard, he believed they were “blinded with profound stupidity” and talked them down from stoning the four people. 

St. Agobard speaking on behalf of those accused of falling from Magonian cloudships, via  Wikimedia Commons

St. Agobard speaking on behalf of those accused of falling from Magonian cloudships, via Wikimedia Commons

It’s clear that these notions were already considered fringe and absurd in Agobard’s time, for he describes believers as being “overcome with so much foolishness, made crazy by so much stupidity.” And it certainly appears that these ideas were destructive in that they may have led to more than one lynching or witch-hunt–type hysteria, for this may not have been the first and only time people were accused of being Tempestaires or Magonians, and others may not have been so lucky as to have a skeptical archbishop around to talk sense into their captors.  Nevertheless, it remains interesting as it seems to suggest that sightings of these cloudships were even more common than it appears from the records we have, for entire mythologies had been developed to interpret and explain them.

We see much of the same kind of prodigies across Europe and the Orient through to the end of the millennium: lights in the sky, sometimes called stars or suns, often described as spherical objects or globes, behaving in a fashion that seems out of character for meteors. In Germany, 944, there are globes described as being composed of iron that burned the countryside. And in Japan, on more than one occasion, what appeared to be groups of three objects were seen flying in formation—in 944 in a triangular pattern and in 989 converging from different direction upon the same point. And in the first half of the second Millenium, the prodigies continued. In addition to much more of the same unidentified lights, we see further descriptions of what appear to be craft engaged in aerial combat! 1023, France, two stars were said to have fought each other throughout the fall season, flying at each other from east to west, one of them repelling the other with a “mane of light” so that it couldn’t come near.  In China, 1169, two dragons were seen during a storm, doing battle in the skies, during which combat, two “pearls like wheels” fell to the earth. In England, in October of 1253, three stars emerged from a black cloud, two small and one large. It was reported that the two small stars charged the large one over and over, sending sparks falling earthward, until the large star reduced in size, or at least, as we might assume, in brightness. And on to Italy, in 1284, where a Franciscan monk recorded that some women in a town called Saint Ruffino witnessed two stars chasing each other around and colliding repeatedly, a sign which he says presaged the outcome of a subsequent naval battle.  Then away east, in Japan in 1349, flying objects were seen coming from different quarters of the heavens, displaying acrobatic maneuvers as they approached each other and emitted flashes of light, as if, one might imagine, they were discharging weapons. After that, back westward, to France in 1395, when there is another report of small stars in combat with a large star, this time five small luminosities pursuing and seeming to attack the larger one. This particular sighting also included the booming sound of a shouting voice and the vision of a spear-wielding man hurling fire at the large star, but make of that what you will. And in October of 1461, in another region of France, 25-foot-long fiery phenomena appeared more than once in the sky, accompanied by a great tumult of noise and behaving as if doing battle. This trend of unidentified aerial phenomena that behaved as if engaged in warfare reached its peak in the 16th century with the so-called Battle of Nuremberg.

A bizarre event recorded for posterity in a broadsheet, complete with woodcut illustration, occurred in Nuremberg at dawn on April 14th, 1561. Two cylinders appeared suspended in the skies over the city. They faced each other in the morning sunlight, standing vertically. In the long history of unidentified aerial phenomena up to this point, there had been numerous accounts of columnar objects in the skies. Often described as pillars, sometimes luminous, they have been known to offer guidance on occasion. Just think of the pillar of fire that lit the way for the Children of Israel in their Exodus. And there are similar tales of fiery sky pillars in ancient Rome and Ireland and Russia, but it’s doubtful that the people of Nuremberg made this connection themselves. Still, you might say there’s some precedent for objects like these. In Nuremberg, however, they did not appear to be flaming pillars. Instead, out of these cylinders flew numerous disks and balls of various colors. The description, in translation, is more than a little confusing, explaining that “within which small and big pipes were found three balls also four and more,” which seems to also indicate that there was a difference in size between the two cylinders. To further confuse the matter, the woodcut illustration accompanying the text depicts three of these pipes—called rods in some translations—rather than two, as well as a great many bars or lines like streaks in the sky. These are described as blood-red strips in the text, and they might be interpreted as long objects themselves or as beams of light or even as contrails produced by the exhaust of the spheres that were apparently flying to and fro, launched from the pillars. Further corresponding to other strange sightings that had been described in preceding eras, crosses are also depicted in the sky at the event in Nuremberg, and a massive black spear as well. One thing is certain. The account is explicit in insisting that the spheres and disks launched from the pillars engaged in a terrible fight, stating that they “flew back and forth among themselves and fought vehemently with each other for over an hour.” And before it was over, some of these battling globes crashed to the earth, burning and smoking.

Glaser's broadsheet with woodcut depiction of the celestial wonder, via  Wikimedia Commons

Glaser's broadsheet with woodcut depiction of the celestial wonder, via Wikimedia Commons

Now skeptics often dismiss this quite famous incident by pointing to a modern debunking of the show Ancient Aliens, called creatively enough, Ancient Aliens Debunked, which casts doubt on the broadsheet, comparing it to the tabloids of today and saying its author may well have fabricated the entire event, even though the broadsheet asserts that the event was witnessed by many people, both in the city and in the countryside beyond. In truth, this is a broad generalization, and we simply don’t know enough about the printer of this broadsheet to discredit it. His name was Hans Wolff Glaser, and he appears to have mostly practiced his woodcutting in portraiture and religious work. While his work may be considered “coarse” today, there is no evidence that he was a hoaxer or that he ever made comparable claims before or after.

Meanwhile, these same debunkers, unable to decide if it was a hoax or if something actually was seen in 1561, go on to suggest that the Nuremberg sighting was simply a case of trying to construe a natural phenomenon to the witnesses’ limited understanding of the world. From this perspective, it was only a parhelion, or sun dog, an atmospheric optical illusion caused by the reflection of light on ice particles in clouds that results in mock suns and crescents—think gratuitous lens flare in a J. J. Abrams film. This phenomenon actually does offer a valid and reasonable explanation for many UAP throughout history, especially those that describe lights in the sky as additional suns. However, it doesn’t really work in the case of the Nuremberg incident, as there remains the problematic detail described in Glaser’s text and illustrated in his woodcut that during the battle over the city, these mysterious objects fell burning to the ground, where they emitted great plumes of smoke as flames consumed them.

And this event does not stand alone in this time period, either, for in Basel, Switzerland, just five years later, another battle of spheres is said to have taken place. Again recorded in a pamphlet complete with an immortal illustration, these balls, which were described as black, were said to have flown at each other and to have collided and burst into flames and burned away to nothing. Certainly this event can be dismissed by casting doubt on the publication as well, or by suggesting the Swiss witnesses had actually seen parhelia, even though the blackness of the spheres against the sun seems to preclude such an explanation, but when you take off your historical blinders and widen your focus beyond a single event or two, you begin to recognize many sightings that appear to share elements: in the same city the next year, for example, a black sphere reportedly obscures the sun for an entire day. In Italy four years after that, a flaming column that might be compared to the cylinders over Nuremberg is seen at night by the papal fleet. A year after that, in Turkey, more crosses are seen in the sky, as in Nuremberg. In 1589, in France, what appears to be another sky battle is reported, this time with clouds flying and hurling fiery spears at one another. And in 1590 Scotland, another tubular object is seen by peasants to hover over a town before vanishing. Can all these be attributed to sun dogs? 

Original publication depicting the Basel, Switzerland, celestial wonder, via  Wikimedia Commons

Original publication depicting the Basel, Switzerland, celestial wonder, via Wikimedia Commons

As we enter the 17th century, reports increase to once every year or two, if not multiple sightings in a year—visions of ships and battles in the sky as well as signs and prodigies like lights and objects including globes and wheels and pillars. In 1665, we find a story out of Germany worth noting for a number of reasons, the foremost of which being that the phenomenon is described as being like a plate with a dome, similar to a man’s hat. In the previous century, there had been several sightings of objects said to be like hats in the sky; these cases, not to mention all the sightings of flying shields, make it clear that the notion of saucer-shaped flying objects may have been around long before Arnold’s time, making the fact of saucer sightings after Arnold’s miscommunication of the shape far less problematic. The story is as follows: in Stralsund, some fisherman reported a flock of sea birds that changed form before their eyes to become battle ships engaged in aerial warfare—once again, a common theme in UAP for centuries. Strangely, though, after this vision faded, they saw a singular object that can most simply be described as a flying saucer. This domed plate hovered over their church for the rest of the day, and the witnesses reported pain and trembling in their limbs the next day, as if their proximity to the object had physically harmed them, an account that calls up notions of radiation poisoning. And toward the end of the century, Germany again saw a strange visitation, over Mecklenberg and Hamburg, in the form of two massive, glowing balls or wheels. After remaining in the sky for fifteen minutes and drawing a crowd of thousands, the objects gave out a loud bang sound and disappeared.

The 17th century also saw the rise of the telescope, an invention that was improved and made more practical by Isaac Newton and others until, in the 18th century, there existed many astronomers, both learned and amateur, all searching the heavens for phenomena of interest. It’s no surprise then that many of the unusual sightings from this era onward, especially after the 1733 development of the achromatic lens, were seen by means of telescopes. In particular, many astronomers believed they saw an unknown planetoid in orbit around Venus, usually observed when Venus was in transit across the disc of the Sun. These are strange enough, since today we know of no Venusian satellites, but even more oddly, astronomers also caught sight of other, unidentified objects passing in front of the sun. These sightings continued into the 19th century, when as we approach the age of aviation, unidentified aerial phenomena become even more complicated by the presence of manmade crafts in the skies. However, we still find some reports that prove hard to explain away.

As discovered in a manuscript archived at the Russian State History Museum, a senator in Moscow wrote a report in 1808 of an object appearing on the horizon and then approaching almost instantaneously with a great, audible crack. Described as a “long, straight plate,” it seems unclear whether it appeared to be saucer-like or was simply flat like a sheet of metal. Regardless, after approaching at phenomenal speed, it stopped and floated in a circle over the Kremlin. Then with a burst of phosphorescent flame from one end, it lit the city as if it were daytime. Thereafter it departed straight upward, shrinking in the distance until it was no longer visible. A remarkable document, it appears to have passed historical scrutiny as the writing style and the age of the paper indicate authenticity.

An illustration accompanying the 1808 manuscript found in the State History Museum, via Information Liberation

An illustration accompanying the 1808 manuscript found in the State History Museum, via Information Liberation

And in this same era, as might be expected, reports begin to arise in the young United States as well. One such can be found in the papers of Thomas Jefferson. In an 1813 letter, one Edward Hansford, a carpenter and the harbormaster of Portsmouth, Virginia, informed Jefferson that he and another man had seen a huge ball of fire, which he describes as “agitated.” As he writes it, the brilliant sphere emitted smoke that occasionally obscured it and then changed its form to that of a turtle, which strikes a chord of familiarity, for what else is a turtle shell but a domed oval, similar indeed to a domed disc. 

And we must wrap up our brief history of UAP with some incidents that seem to encapsulate many of these reports, in that they appear authentic and certainly tantalize with their strange details, but with close examination we see they may derive from less than reliable sources. In an Ohio town called Jay, one Henry Wallace and several others are said to have seen an unusual vessel, mechanical in nature with wheels and other workings that could be observed from below as it passed by, flying about a hundred yards above the ground at a speed of around 6 miles an hour. According to this report, the witnesses saw the occupants of this vessel and estimated they were, on average, about twelve feet tall. Now this story comes to us from an 1858 book that is primarily medical in nature, which also touches on other fringe science, and purports to be a story told to the author firsthand by the witnesses themselves. As with many of the sightings I’ve already recounted, this one can easily be doubted based on its source. Researchers trying to confirm some particulars in it have only been able to ascertain that a town called Jay existed, but not as late as 1858, having seemingly ceased to be after 1842, and that a Henry Wallace lived in a nearby county. The rest of it must be accepted on credulity alone.

And here we are already in the age of ballooning, as Jean-Pierre Blanchard crossed the English Channel in a hand-powered balloon in 1784, and in 1852, Henri Giffard made the first known flight in a steam-powered balloon. Thus, the Jay, Ohio, sighting may be one of the first sightings of the mystery airships that would proliferate in the 19th century. In 1861, for example, the New York Times reported the passage of a manned balloon over New York City but could not ascertain who had built or piloted it. And in this vein comes the last account I’ll share from Vallee and Aubeck’s chronology, which again presents 500 reports throughout history and would make a great coffee table book and conversation piece if you’re into this kind of stuff. This story, like the last, seems to indicate, strangely, that the nearer we come to modern accounts, the less reliable these sightings become. It at first appears to be the tale of a mystery airship, as Frederick William Birmingham, an alderman of Parramatta, in New South Wales, Australia, reports that he witnessed a flying ark touch down near his cottage. He describes its motions and structure with great precision, noting that its hull appeared tremulous and metallic, likening it to the scales of a fish. His story goes on to become even stranger, with a disembodied voice asking him to board the vessel and his being lifted off the ground and carried aloft to its upper decks. An occupant of the vessel, looking like a normal man, invited him down steps into the craft’s interior and awarded him with blueprints to build an airship of the same design. Thereafter, Birmingham experienced what ufologists might term high strangeness, with further signs in the sky and even poltergeist activity in his home. Quite an astounding tale, but in tracing it to its source, researchers have found it dubious. It comes to us through the writings of a ufologist who claimed to have transcribed it in the 1950s from a handwritten book that, first discovered by a teacher in the 1940s had thereafter been passed from person to person before getting into the hands of ufologists and astrologers and promptly disappearing. In fact, there appears to be no evidence of the original manuscript’s existence.

Thus as the late modern period approaches contemporary history, we find reports of UAP more and more problematic, based solely on the presence of explainable aircraft and the proliferation of hoaxers and UFO enthusiasts willing to fabricate incidents. And of course, it is also true that all the long parade of sightings throughout history might easily be dismissed as scientifically explainable meteorological phenomena or atmospheric optical illusions that witnesses simply had no understanding of or could not process without interpreting them according to their understanding of the world, or perhaps as hallucinations or tall tales spread by religious zealots or mischief makers, for such people seem to have been around since time immemorial. Moreover, sightings by early astronomers might easily be called mistakes chalked up to the science of astronomy and the use of telescopes still being in their infancy. But what this brief history of unidentified aerial phenomena certainly demonstrates is that UFOs are not a phenomenon peculiar to contemporary history. While they might have been called signs or prodigies in different eras, they’ve been reported throughout history, as have even more bizarre reports of abductions and encounters with actual mystery beings.

Therefore, considering this historical context, a news story about the Pentagon evaluating the threat of UFOs should not seem like fringe lunacy or a waste of taxpayer money. Rather, if one does not turn a blind eye to this phenomenon’s long history, it seems a prudent and practical program, and one that, along with the rigorous scientific study of what many consider fringe theories, has been sorely lacking for a long time. So kudos to the Times for printing their recent story despite potential embarrassment, and kudos to Jacques Vallee for peering around the blind corners of our past and recording oddities to which other historians would rather shut their eyes.

Blind Spot: Three Men Gone from Eilean Mor, the Missing Keepers of the Flannan Isles Light

Eilean Mor from south_(1912)_(14565088407).jpg

Steeped as it is in folklore and mummery, I feel I must first tell the story of the Great Lighthouse Mystery as it is most often received, as something of a scary campfire tale, before illuminating it with the light of scholarship and skepticism, as this is a tale of the darkness that reigns when a guiding light is left untended. Thus, we may begin with the reports of December 15, 1900, when in the dangerous waters of the Outer Hebrides, two ships, the Fairwind and the Archtor, expecting to see the 140,000 candle-power warning light shining from the lighthouse atop the 150-foot cliffs of Eilean Mór, the largest of the craggy Flannan Isles, saw instead only darkness. And in that darkness, as some have told it, the crew of the Fairwind saw some ragged men like specters rowing a boat toward the benighted isle. While the Fairwind appears not to have reported the extinguished light, the Archtor eventually did, upon finally arriving at Leith port after considerable delay. The Archtor had bottomed out on a rock and taken on water; her captain had to beach and lighten her before she could make it into port. This delay, as well as a further 10-day delay on the part of the Archtor’s agents to report the outage of the light and a failure on the part of the Northern Lighthouse Board’s lookout to note and report the problem himself, meant that no one was aware of anything out of the ordinary on Eilean Mór until the Hesperus, the NLB lighthouse tender, arrived on December 26th, Boxing Day, with supplies and relief. On board was Joseph Moore, a lighthouse keeper coming off his two weeks’ leave. When the Hesperus came close enough to sight the lighthouse and saw no signal flag, it blew its steam whistle and fired a rocket, neither of which elicited any response from above

Moore was dispatched with the second mate and a third sailor in a longboat that docked at the small landing carved into the rock at the base of Eilean Mór’s cliffs, and he left the crewmen behind then, climbing the steep, hand-carved steps up to the grassy embankment at the top and making his way past the ruins of an ancient chapel to the living quarters of the lighthouse keepers in his search for the three lighthouse keepers that had been alone on the island for weeks. One can imagine him shouting their names as he approached, James Ducat and Thomas Marshall—or perhaps Jim and Tom to Joseph Moore—and Donald MacArthur, the Occasional keeper who may not have been so well-known to him. He found the outer door closed, and through a passage, the inner door to the kitchen was shut as well. Inside, he found an unfinished meal of potatoes and salt-mutton, and an overturned chair. But it was not until he noticed that all the clocks had wound down and stopped that Joseph Moore became certain the lighthouse keepers had not been there for some time.

The hand-carved steps of Eilean Mor, via  Wikimedia Commons

The hand-carved steps of Eilean Mor, via Wikimedia Commons

Hurrying back to the boat, he enlisted the other two men to help him search. In the lighthouse tower itself, they found the light was clean and full of fuel, as though well-tended to the very last. When this second search failed to turn up any sign of the keepers, they all returned to the Hesperus to report, whereupon Moore and three others were promptly dispatched back to the lighthouse to illuminate the night. The next day, Moore and the other replacement keepers searched the entire island for any indications of what had transpired there. At the west landing, which faced the vast open Atlantic, they discovered some evidence of severe weather. The rails of a steam-powered tramway, installed for hauling supplies up the cliff face, had been bent out of shape and dislodged from the rock by some powerful force, and a box of mooring ropes that should have been firmly anchored in a cleft of rock was simply gone. Then, back at the residence, they found a disturbing sign: a coat, still on its peg. Each of the missing lighthouse keepers had protective weather gear that he would not have ventured outside without wearing, especially in inclement weather—Ducat had his waterproof, Marshall his oilskins, and MacArthur, the Occasional, his wearing coat. It appeared that MacArthur’s wearing coat had been left behind, such that he must have gone out of doors in a state of undress.

Within a few days, the Superintendent of Lighthouses, Robert Muirhead, arrived to write his own report, and his investigation noted some further signs of foul weather having struck the island: a one-ton boulder had tumbled down the slope to rest on a concrete path, and along that same path, an emergency buoy had been somehow forcefully ripped from the railing, not as if by a man seeking to use it but rather as if by some brute and unthinking force, for it had left behind fragments of canvas. This damage was at 110 feet above sea level, a fact that would prove troublesome to some theories as they developed.

And finally, an important piece of evidence was the lighthouse log, in which the keepers kept dated track of weather and sea conditions as well as anything the Northern Lighthouse Board might need recorded. The last entry was dated December 15th, the very day that passing vessels had first noticed the lighthouse was dark. Much has been written about these final log entries in the years since, as interest in the Great Lighthouse Mystery has evolved, for in some ways, as we have received them, they appear to be odd and foreboding. On the 12th of December, Marshall writes about a storm the likes of which he’s never seen, and mentions in passing how quiet Ducat was and how MacArthur had been crying. Then on the 13th, he makes sure to put down that all three of them took to prayer, such was their disquiet and dread. Then, on the 15th, he notes that the weather has calmed, stating cryptically, “God is over all.”

From left: Donald MacArthur, Thomas Marshall, James Ducat, and Robert Muirhead, via  Hushed Up History

From left: Donald MacArthur, Thomas Marshall, James Ducat, and Robert Muirhead, via Hushed Up History

As the legend of Eilean Mór grew, so did the theories of what transpired there proliferate. The most common of these, and still the most believable, have to do with poor weather somehow sweeping the three lighthouse keepers into the sea, whether by wave or by wind. However, in later years, reports of the mysterious log entries—which seemed to indicate that weather could not have been the culprit, having calmed before their disappearance—have led to speculation of supernatural or paranormal explanations. So, if it had not been weather, perhaps it was aliens? Because that’s the next logical jump, right? Or perhaps we should remain grounded in history and look at the lore surrounding the island itself. The only former inhabitant of Eilean Mór was St. Flannan, a Celtic monk who according to legend had miraculously floated to Rome on a rock to be consecrated, was known to pronounce curses on robber-barons, and on account of a prophecy that he might become a monarch, asked God to miraculously disfigure his face in order to avoid kingship, which prayer the Lord supposedly answered. The ruins of this saint’s chapel remained, and the lighthouse keepers passed it by daily. Perhaps, then, the keepers offended the spirit of St. Flannan, and the monk showed his scarred face once more to curse the men.

Then again, the history of the isles extends back much further than the 7th century. According to folklore recorded in the 17th century by Martin Martin, the island had once been home to the Losbirdan, people of low-stature whose little bones had been discovered in the soils there. Some have turned these legends of small folk into talk of mischievous elves or spirits of dead sprites who might have acted in some impish way on the men. Regardless of the accuracy of this interpretation of the lore, though, it can’t be argued that superstition surrounded the island. Martin recorded a number of strange traditions followed by those few who visited the islands to gather eggs and down from the nests of sea birds. They believed they had to have an easterly wind in order to approach the island, as a westerly wind was a fell omen. Upon passing the ruins of St. Flannan’s chapel, they stripped to the waist, placed their upper clothes on the altar and prayed three times. And while fowling on the island, they felt they must avoid using certain common words, relying instead on synonyms or alternate nouns. Whether these men feared retribution from St. Flannan or the little Losbirdan is unclear, but it’s almost certain that the lighthouse men failed to follow these ancient precautions. Could it therefore be that they incurred the wrath of something that had lain dormant on the island for centuries? So go the fanciful theories of ghost story enthusiasts, at least….

The problem is that most of the evidence pointing to anomalous goings-on has proven unreliable. First, the unusual log entries that supposedly prove weather could not have caused the three men’s disappearance: Fortean Times contributor Mike Dash, in a very well-researched paper that has served as my principal source for this episode, scoured contemporary sources and found no evidence of such entries. Moreover, he shows how illogical they are, containing chronological errors, being kept by only one lighthouse keeper and not the lead keeper, and noting things that wouldn’t belong in the log, such as melodramatic language and petty observations on the other men’s behavior. Moreover, the log entries don’t seem to have appeared until years after the fact, not so much as a hoax but more as a dramatic embellishment added by one author who thought it made for a better story, and thereafter picked up and included in other renditions. This is how history becomes mythologized, and it seems to have happened in this story in more than one regard. For example, the entire story of the Fairwind spying pale and ragged men working the oars of a lifeboat and heading for the island on the 15th also seems to be apocryphal, as it only appears in a few less than reliable sources. And again, Dash proves that the entire element of the unfinished meal appears to have been fabricated and added to the story somewhere along the way, as he digs up contemporary reports that show the kitchen was clean and tidy, and that indeed a chair may not have even been overturned as so often gets included in the tale. The same, he points out, is true of the Mary Celeste, whose myth grew to include a fictional abandoned meal, as though the diners had vanished mid-victuals. It’s enough to make one doubt reports of the ribs and pea soup in the Carroll A. Deering tale.

The Flannan Isles Light, via Wikimedia Commons

The Flannan Isles Light, via Wikimedia Commons

However, the unusual details that the Occasional keeper, MacArthur, had left his wearing coat on the peg and that the outer and inner doors of the living quarters had been found shut remain problematic. There are a few remaining theories, but these facts trouble all of them. First, weather: disregarding the dubious log entries, there may well have been a violent squall at the island. It would be unusual for the men to have gone out in such weather at all, but as Dash points out, lighthouse keepers could be docked pay for being so careless as to lose equipment, and Ducat and Marshall may have donned their weather gear and gone out to secure the box of ropes which later turned up missing. Then either a gale-force wind or a great rogue wave threatened to take them, and seeing that they were in danger or hearing their cries for help, MacArthur rushed out in his shirtsleeves to help them, whereupon all three had been swept away. The problem with that theory, however, is that MacArthur rushed out without his coat but still had the presence of mind to shut every door behind him as he went.

And there are other problems with the theories of a gust of wind or a wave taking the men. Some have claimed that, considering the wind’s direction at the time, they would have been blown up the grassy slope, not into the sea. That leaves rogue waves, which, some will argue, are not known to reach such a height that they could wash the men into the sea. There was, however, hard evidence of damage at as high as 110 feet on the island, for the buoy had been violently torn from the path’s handrail. While open ocean waves aren’t known to reach that height, it remains a possibility that local conditions among the rocks and cliffs of the island somehow contributed to the creation of a monster wave. For example, one Christopher Nicholson has pointed out that the geos, or narrow gullies, along the coastline could channel the crashing sea into gargantuan waves.

Others, likely encouraged by the mythical log entries and rejecting weather as the cause altogether, have theorized that the Occasional, MacArthur, went stir crazy or came to resent the other two keepers, and simply snapped, leaving his coat and going out to attack the men; whereupon he shoved them over into the sea and fell with them during the struggle. There is no real evidence for this rendition, though. The man was a 40-year-old former soldier with a wife back on the mainland. If any of them might have snapped, one would think it might have been the unmarried, 28-year-old Marshall.

Then there are other theories: perhaps they were taken off the island by a ship, perhaps by the secret service or foreign agents. But a weather disaster remains the most viable. Mystery indeed persists, but to me, it seems boiled down to a matter of a coat on a peg and some shut doors. What could have compelled MacArthur to go out of doors without any protection from the weather? Whatever the reason, it must have been something that caused him to run out in a mad rush, which doesn’t correspond with the fact that doors had been neatly shut behind him. So in the end, we don’t really know what happened that day on Eilean Mór, an island that is essentially just the tip of a massive undersea mountain, and so, as far as we know, the disappearance of these three men itself may be just the visible tip of much larger story that is hidden from our view by the murky waters of the Atlantic. And just like ships passing the darkened lighthouse in December of 1900 expected a spotlight to illuminate their way but were instead engulfed in shadows, so too we, looking back on the Flannan Isles Lighthouse Mystery, find ourselves floating helplessly in the darkness of a historical blind spot.

The Carroll A. Deering, Ghost Ship of Cape Hatteras

carroll deering.png

At dawn on January 31st, 1921, from the lookout perch at the U.S. Coast Guard’s Cape Hatteras Station, Surfman C. P. Brady peered out at the morning fog and spied a dark shape out on the shallow waters of Diamond Shoals, that collection of ever changing sandbars just off the coast, which, together with the other shoals off the Outer Banks, was known for claiming ships and earned the area the sobriquet “The Graveyard of the Atlantic.” But there had also been another name among native tribes for this particular island now called Hatteras, a name listeners should recognize; it had once been called Croatoan by its inhabitants.

This morning, Surfman Brady squinted into the mists, unsure if his eyes were playing tricks on him in the crepuscular light and the morning’s brumous haze. But as the soupy mist receded, there could be no mistaking it.  Somehow, in the night, a schooner had bottomed out on a sandbar of the Diamond Shoals despite the clear warning of the nearby Cape Hatteras Light, atop the black and white spiral stripes of its lighthouse tower.  And what’s more, she looked to be a magnificent vessel, 255 feet from stem to stern, all told, with five grand masts and all its sails set. It must have been quite the sight, a relic from a bygone era appearing out of the fog of the past.

When the news of the shipwreck went out from the Coast Guard station, it was acted on by local boatmen, for there were many in that region who stood ready at a moment’s notice to plunge into the choppy waters of the Cape when a ship had run aground. First, there was the Lifesaving Service, which had stations seven miles apart up and down the coasts of the Outers Banks and had men marching the beaches on constant watch for ships in distress, none of which sentries had managed to spy the five-masted schooner out on the shoals. Then there were the wreckers, those who would have sought to salvage anything aboard the schooner before the waves that had scuttled it battered it to pieces. This was, after all, not far south of Nag’s Head, where as I discussed in my episode on Theodosia Burr, there was a long tradition of wreckers or bankers who would lure ships ashore and strip them of goods. Those still at the family business in the 1920s, of course, were of a decidedly less piratical bent, but they’d still make all haste to a ship that had foundered on the shoals. The seas, however, proved too rough for any of these lifesavers and wreckers and even for the Coast Guard cutters that were eventually dispatched to the wreck, and none could approach any closer than a quarter mile to the ship.

When finally, days later, on the 4th of February, the tugboat Rescue captained by James Carlson was able to board the schooner, it had been so battered by the sea that it was taking on water, its fore and aft decks rolling independently of one another with each crash of the waves. They made a search of her and found no one aboard, unless one counted the starved and mewling ship’s cat—or cats according to some versions. As in  the stories of the Mary Celeste, a meal had been prepared; there were ribs in a pan, pea soup in a pot and coffee on the stove. Unlike that other ghost ship, though, there were clear signs of the ship’s abandonment. The ladder was hanging over the side and its lifeboats were gone—there had been a dory and a motorized yawl, and their falls had been simply cut as if to abandon the ship in haste. Moreover, all the crew’s belongings had been taken, as had the nautical instruments—her sextant and chronometer and telescope—and the ship’s papers. Oddly, in the head, or the toilet area, Captain Carlson found the ship’s charts strewn about, and elsewhere, he found the steering equipment disabled—the wheel had been shattered, the rudder disengaged from its stock, and the binnacle box staved in and broken. A sledge hammer leaned ominously near at hand, but Carlson could not tell if it had been utilized as an instrument of sabotage or a tool of repair. Further evidence also suggested the schooner had not been in working order even before it had foundered on the shoal, for both of its anchors were gone, and strangely, it seemed that the ship had simultaneously been sailing with her running lights and her emergency lights lit, as all were burned out. The latter, two red lights situated high up in the rigging, were signals meant to indicate an out-of-control vessel.

In the days after Captain Carlson of the tug Rescue was finally able to board the schooner, wreckers salvaged what they could for auction, which wasn’t much—some sails that could still be reused, some furniture. As it continued to be battered against the shoal by the relentless ocean, it was eventually declared to be a menace to the navigation of other ships. So an order was given to dynamite her, and most sources say that is what was done. At least one version gives a far more dramatic ending, however, asserting that even as the Coast Guard cutters put out to sea with the explosives to carry out these orders, a sudden storm whipped up and finally shattered the ghost ship. Either way, whether by man or by nature, she was certainly reduced to a patch of debris and timbers floating far and wide to wash ashore up and down the Outer Banks. And somewhere among that flotsam could likely be seen the transom, which as it drifted away still bore the schooner’s name and origin: Carroll A. Deering, Bath.

The stern of the schooner, via the  National Park Foundation

The stern of the schooner, via the National Park Foundation

The five-masted schooner had been the largest and the last ship ever constructed by G. G. Deering Company in Maine—the finest accomplishment of the 99 ships Gardiner Deering built, and thus he had named it after his own son. And she was something of a ghost from the moment she was christened, as the days of wooden sailing vessels were dwindling when she was launched in 1919.

Designed to carry coal at a capacity of 3,500 tons, this she had done well until in late 1920, with a hold packed with coal bound for Rio de Janeiro, her captain became ill and the crew of the Carroll A. Deering was obliged to accept a substitute captain, an able old salt named Willis Wormell, on what would prove to be its final voyage. And it was the daughter of this new captain, one Lula Wormell, who would later demand a federal investigation of what had happened to the 10-strong crew of the Carroll A. Deering, as she was certain that if the crew had simply abandoned the ship on Diamond Shoals, they would have easily found help from the Coast Guard on shore and Captain Willis Wormell would have reunited with his family shortly thereafter.

The investigation uncovered some strange and foreboding details when looking into their journey. It turned out that, during a stay in Barbados en route to Norfolk, Virginia, after delivering their shipment of coal in Rio, Captain Wormell found another Maine sea captain who happened to be in port, one G. W. Bunker, and spent a day speaking with him, expressing some grave concerns over the crew he had found himself leading. He considered them unruly, especially his first mate, Charles McLellan. Meanwhile, McLellan had been enjoying the local rum and gotten deep into his cups, whereupon he found himself jailed and awaiting Captain Wormell to post his bail. This the captain did, but not before McLellan had supposedly been overheard making threats against the captain, swearing at one point that he would “get the old man” before they reached Norfolk.

After weathering several extremely stormy weeks on the Atlantic, the Deering was next sighted by a lightship 90 miles south of Hatteras. According to the captain of that lightship, one James Steel, the Deering’s crew appeared to be milling about on the quarterdeck, where crewmen were not typically allowed. A tall and thin red-haired man who did not speak or act like an officer addressed the lightship with a Scandinavian accent through a loudspeaker, claiming the vessel had lost its anchors south of Cape Fear near the Frying Pan Shoals while attempting to wait out a windstorm, and asked that the owners of the ship, G. G. Deering Company in Bath, Maine, be informed. The next afternoon, another vessel spotted the Deering plying waters on a course that would take it right onto the Diamond Shoals. These eyewitnesses, however, saw no one on her decks and simply disregarded the schooner, assuming her crew would eventually spot the Cape Hatteras Light or the Diamond Shoal Lightship and thereby avoid foundering on a sandbar.

Color drawing of Cape Hatteras Light by  Paul McGehee

Color drawing of Cape Hatteras Light by Paul McGehee

But of course, they didn’t. And these piecemeal reports of the schooner’s final voyage, stitched together, appeared to point to one explanation: mutiny. And in support of this theory, there were some few other tantalizing details reported by Captain Carlson of the tug Rescue. It seems that there had been handwritten notes in Captain Wormell’s own hand in the margins of some of the recovered maps that had been dated up until the 23rd of January, 1921, after which the marginalia had been scrawled in another hand. Moreover, in the captain’s quarters, Carlson noted that the spare bed had been slept in, and he discovered three pairs of boots there, none of which belonged to Captain Wormell. These details along with the report of the men loitering on the quarterdeck, which was usually reserved only for the captain, and the fact that a red-haired Scandinavian man had addressed the lightship as if he were the captain, led many to assume that perhaps McLellan had made good on his threat, or that perhaps his mutiny had been quelled but not before it had claimed all those of high position on the vessel, as there were indeed Scandinavians aboard: six Danes, all sailors, and one Finn who served as boatswain. Perhaps the survivors of the shipwreck had all fled the Deering in fear of imprisonment.

However, the federal investigation, spearheaded by then Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover, turned up some further items of interest as well. No sign of the lifeboats had ever been found, nor any wreckage or corpses. Nearby ports were all put on alert for any surviving crew members, but despite some false alarms, none ever turned up. As there was no way the men would have been able to run off with these boats carried over their heads, that meant either the ocean had swallowed them entire, survivors and all, or they had purposely sunk the lifeboats to cover their tracks. The only other possibility was that the boats, and perhaps the crew as well, had been taken up by another vessel. And indeed, as it turned out, another ship, the SS Hewitt, an oil steamer of the Union Sulphur Company, had disappeared off the Carolina coast around the same time. This has since led to speculation that the whole affair might be an early case of anomalous phenomena related to the Bermuda Triangle, suggesting that both of these ships met with unexplainable fates while in the northernmost waters of that mysterious patch of ocean, but at the time, these details pointed to a far more prosaic if no less unbelievable explanation: piracy. Unbelievable, I say, because this was far from the age in which piracy was common; it was the roaring 20s, not the 18th century.

Nevertheless, some information appeared that seemed to support this notion. For example, another ship, the Cyclops, had earlier disappeared in the area, further giving credence to the idea that pirates had been preying on ships in those waters. And shortly after James Steel, the captain of the lightship south of Hatteras, had encountered the Deering and spoken to the red-haired man on its quarterdeck, he spied an oil steamer and hailed it, thinking its crew could pass on the red-haired man’s distress message since his own wireless communications equipment was not in working order. This steamer, however, did not respond, and Steel, his interest piqued, examined the vessel and found he could not see its name displayed. He then blew his whistle, and contrary to maritime law, the steamer simply ignored him and changed its course. Could this have been the Hewitt, piloted by the pirates who had taken her?

The S. S. Hewitt, via  Wikimedia Commons

The S. S. Hewitt, via Wikimedia Commons

Adherents of the piracy theory did not have to wait long for a smoking gun to tilt the case in their favor, for in April, an area fisherman named Christopher Columbus Gray discovered a message in a bottle while combing a beach north of Cape Hatteras. The fisherman turned it over to the Coast Guard, and the federal investigation then confirmed that the bottle was of a kind manufactured in Brazil, and the paper on which the note had been written matched a type commonly made in Norway. Moreover, those who knew the crew of the Deering identified the script as matching the handwriting of an engineer aboard the Deering—indeed the only member of the crew that Captain Wormell considered a stalwart friend—as it followed his unusual habit of capitalizing words mid-sentence. The message read:  “Deering Captured by Oil Burning Boat Something Like Chaser taking Off everything Handcuffing Crew Crew hiding All over Ship no Chance to Make escape finder please notify head Qtrs Of Deering.”

The press, getting wind of the investigation, took the piracy theory and ran with it. The New York Times admitted it was a remote possibility but nevertheless a valid one, and the Washington Post took the matter much further, adding the intriguing angle, based on the message in Gray’s bottle, that said pirates had a torpedo-boat chaser or perhaps even a submarine obtained from a foreign government after World War One. These pirates, according to speculation, could be smugglers of bootleg alcohol, rogue Germans still fighting the war out of some African port, or Russian Bolsheviks looking to carry their spoils back to their fledgling Soviet Fatherland! The bootleggers theory was an especially popular one, this being the Prohibition era, as the Deering had come through rum-soaked Barbados. And the Deering’s hold would have been able to carry something like a million dollars’ worth of contraband alcohol, thereby making the vessel extremely valuable to booze runners. However, the idea that Bolshevists were preying on American ships off the coast of the Carolinas gained traction as well. Other ships that had gone missing in that general time frame were compiled in a list as victims of these supposed pirates, and it was pointed out that some of the cargo on ships reported missing was material denied the Communist regime under terms of embargo. Then a raid on a New York Communist front group turned up papers calling on revolutionaries to steal American vessels and cross the Atlantic to bring them to Russia, and rumors of ships appearing in Russian ports with blacked-out names began to circulate.

Of course, all of this should be considered in the context of the Red Scare, which was in full swing after the strikes, bombings and riots of 1919. Other news outlets, like the Wall Street Journal, and actual experts on nautical risks like meteorologists and Lloyd’s of London tended to downplay the idea that pirates were involved at all. Pirates would not have kidnapped the crew and abandoned the vessel, as the vessel itself or its cargo would have been their prize, and they certainly wouldn’t have needed the lifeboats, having presumably boarded the schooner from their own boats, so that was another mark in favor of the mutiny theory or the rather bland theory that the crew simple ran aground and then drowned in rough seas when they abandoned the schooner. Other theories suggested freak weather catastrophes that compelled the crew to abandon ship long before running aground or that the Deering had struck a floating mine left in the water from WWI. However, it seems unlikely they would not have reefed their sails during such inclement weather, and reports indicate the ship was intact on its sandbar and did not start taking on water until it had suffered days of crashing waves there, which would rule out the floating mine suggestion. Still other theories pointed to tropical disease and mass suicide, but these were even more far-fetched and couldn’t account for the lost lifeboats or the crew’s missing belongings.

And what of the message in a bottle? In August, a federal agent got close with the discoverer of the note, Christopher Columbus Gray, and coaxed from him an admission that he had forged the note as a hoax. At first, Gray evaded arrest, but later, rather stupidly accepting an invitation to start employment at the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, he was captured and confessed again to the imposture, explaining that he believed the renown from finding the message might land him a coveted job in the lighthouse.

Newspaper headline of September 1921, via the  State Archives of North Carolina

Newspaper headline of September 1921, via the State Archives of North Carolina

One by one, these tall tales seemed to collapse beneath the weight of their own supposition, as the majority of the 10 missing ships presumed to be victims of pirates were thereafter blamed on an especially severe hurricane season. The federal investigation officially petered out in 1922, but no one theory remains a clear and certain answer. Did the ship lose its anchors and steering equipment in a storm and run out of control into the shoal? If so, why had they prepared and set out a meal before abandoning ship? And what happened to them afterward? Were their boats overwhelmed by waves?

Or had there been a mutiny against Captain Wormell led by First Mate McLellan? If so, how did they come to lose their anchors? Or was it perhaps both mutiny and foul weather that befell the ship? And then, what about the SS Hewitt? It is thought that this steam vessel would surely have survived any foul weather in the area. Does anything other than being boarded by pirates explain the disappearance of the Hewitt? Christopher Columbus Gray admitted to forging the message in a bottle, but that itself still seems mysterious, for how did this Carolina fisherman get the Brazilian bottle and Norwegian paper? Nor does he appear to have explained how he was able to effect such a convincing imitation of the engineer’s handwriting—or was that just a coincidental likeness or confirmation bias on the part of those who identified the writing? And even without the note, could not some act of piracy still be a viable explanation, at least in part? Couldn’t it be both, somehow? Or all? Could not the Deering have suffered a mutiny and then encountered disastrous weather, whereupon they encountered pirates who had earlier taken the Hewitt and then took the Deering as well? Perhaps it was these pirates who, discovering the schooner beyond repair, aimed it for the shoals and abandoned it for their true prize, the Hewitt.

If this were the 19th century, it might easily be assumed that the wreckers and bankers of the region had hung lamps from their horses’ necks to fool the ship’s crew into thinking they were entering safe harbor, only to founder themselves and be boarded and murdered. But this was the 20th century, and the Coast Guard was stationed nearby, and besides, there was no sign of violence aboard and nothing had been taken from the ship for salvage.

If pirates don’t float your boat, so to speak, would you rather look for some far more unexplainable explanation? Did the vanishing of the Hewitt and the disappearance of the Carroll Deering’s crew have something to do with that nexus of mysterious happenings, the Bermuda Triangle? Or perhaps to you this bears too striking a resemblance to the disappearance from that same neighborhood of over a hundred colonists at Roanoke some 330 years earlier. Perhaps, if Captain Carlson’s men had had examined the ghost ship just a little more closely before abandoning it a second time to the merciless sea, they might have glimpsed a mysterious word carved into one of the schooner’s five masts and recognized it as the ancient name of the island off whose shore it had foundered: Croatoan.



Thanks for listening to Historical Blindness, the Odd Past Podcast. My principal source for this episode was Hatteras Island: Keeper of the Outer Banks by Ray McAllister and the non-fiction novel Ghost Ship of Diamond Shoals: The Mystery of the Carroll A. Deering by Bland Simpson, which I highly recommend and which you can find a link to on the website’s reading list.

Blind Spot: The Terrible within the Small; or, The Fabrication of the Learned Elders of Zion and the Forgery of Their Protocols


In this short companion piece to my previous post on the Blood Libel, it turns out I have a bit more to say about that topic, for unbeknownst to me while I wrote that piece, the ancient accusation that Jews engaged in ritual murder was actually in the news. For any who doubt that these grossly absurd and malicious myths could possibly be given any credence in the modern era, consider the fact that the Russian Orthodox Church, in conjunction with Vladimir Putin’s regime, have just revived the blood libel in the form of a claim that in 1918, Tsar Nicholas II and the rest of the Romanov family—including little Anastasia, despite persistent rumors—were not just executed but were ritually murdered. While they may not have named Jews as the ritual murderers, Russia’s long history of dubiously associating Jews with Bolshevism makes the subtext of the accusation clear, and Jewish organizations in Russia and abroad have expressed not only concern but outrage.

That the blood libel would rise again in Russia, of all places, is sadly not surprising, for Russia has a long history of brutally oppressing the Jews. Jews had been forbidden to enter Russia since the 15th century, but after 1772 and the first partition of Poland, they came under Russian rule regardless. Fearing the competition of Jewish merchants, Jews were restricted to living only in certain border territories, later called the Pale of Settlement. Tsars consistently struggled with the question of how to deal with this foreign element in their kingdom. Some made attempts to integrate them, such as Tsar Nicholas I, who did so by imposing forced conscription, requiring all Jews to serve 25 years in his armies on the assumption that this would acculturate them nicely. Nevertheless, Russian Jews preserved their cultural heritage and thus their “otherness.” By the 1860s, fears of Jewish plots began to arise, and by the 1880s, we see the first of the Russian pogroms, usually around Easter, when the story of Jews murdering Christ inevitably stirred ire and likely rekindled the blood accusation as well. Moreover, Jews who had built any measure of affluence for themselves despite the restrictions placed on them appear to have inspired envy and hostility among poor Russians, who invariably incited these targeted riots by starting brawls. After the pogroms of the 1880s, the Russian state increased its systemic repression of the Jews, limiting their economic privileges, restricting their further settlement, blocking their admission to higher education and eventually expelling them from Moscow. Russian Jews responded with a further diaspora, fleeing for friendlier lands, and among those who stayed, many joined the Zionist movement, justifiably yearning for a homeland all their own, while others became radicalized, swelling the ranks of revolutionary movements, which of course only exacerbated mischievous lies that all Jews conspired together to overthrow the Russian monarchy, or perhaps on an even grander scale, to conquer the world. This is the story of one such conspiracy theory and the documentary evidence supposed by many—even today, despite all evidence to the contrary—to prove it true, the story of what has proven to be a tenacious historical blind spot for many. Thank you for listening to The Terrible within the Small; or, The Fabrication of the Learned Elders of Zion and the Forgery of Their Protocols.

1905 map showing percentage of Jews in the Pale of Settlement, via  Wikimedia Commons

1905 map showing percentage of Jews in the Pale of Settlement, via Wikimedia Commons

Conspiracy theories claiming that all Jews worked together internationally to advance some nefarious agenda were not new. As I mentioned at the end of my episode on the Blood Libel, the idea was present in medieval Norwich in Thomas of Monmouth’s claim that the converted Jew Theobald had revealed to him a great council of Jewish royalty and leaders who convened in France to decide which country would host their annual ritual murder. And in 1348, the very same year that the Black Plague appeared, so did accusations that the disease had been spread by Jews poisoning wells as a means to destroy Christians. However, the 19th century saw a transformation of the conspiracy theories about the Jews. Rather than depicting them merely as anti-Christians, they began to be seen as a secret cabal hell-bent on world domination. Now this was a role traditionally played by Templar Freemasons and the Bavarian Illuminati in transnational conspiracy theories, but after the Revolution of 1848, in which Jews were active, these conspiracies to overthrow the status quo and supplant it with something different, and therefore frightening, began to be blamed on Jews as well as Freemasons. In the 1860s, a number of books appeared that promulgated these myths. Posing as an English aristocrat, Hermann Goedsche published a novel called Biarritz in 1868 in which he has a cabal of powerful Jews meeting secretly in a Prague cemetery to discuss their vast scheme to subvert the governments and religions of the world to their eventual gain. This scene, it turns out, was baldly plagiarized from an Alexandre Dumas novel depicting Cagliostro meeting with the Illuminati to discuss the Affair of the Necklace, but it clearly indicates the kind of intrigue attributed to Jews in those years.

In Russia the next year, we see Iakov Brafman’s Book of the Kahal, published in Minsk, that set forth the claims that following the much maligned Talmud, Russian Jews had learned to hate Russia’s culture and people and were actively conspiring to topple the Orthodox Church. Then the religious enmities and the lust for secular power attributed to the Jews finally came together in one especially vitriolic accusation. One Sergei Nilus published a book in 1903 entitled The Great within the Small. Due to his role in the bringing forth of a monstrous and seemingly immortal conspiracy, Nilus has to posterity become a much mythologized character, a monk and a séance-leading mystic—which considering the preoccupation with occultism and spiritualism at the tsar’s court would not itself be absurd if it were accurate. In truth, Nilus was from a noble family and had practiced law for a time, but after retiring, he became enamored of the apocalyptic strain of the Orthodox faith, and eventually established his own brand of visionary religion. He gained some fame for himself when, in the first edition of The Great within the Small, he claimed to find and translate the writings of a famous Russian saint. However, it is in the second edition of The Great within the Small, which bore the subtitle The Advent of the Antichrist and the Approaching Rule of the Devil on Earth, that his anti-Semitic conspiracy theory takes clearer shape. In it, he outright asserts the existence of a worldwide Judeo-Masonic conspiracy not only to overthrow Christian states and establish their own global dominion but also to raise up a Jewish world leader, a tyrant who would be the Antichrist. And as proof of their machinations, he offered as an appendix another document that had somewhat mysteriously come into his possession: The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, which purported to be the minutes of a secret meeting among the masterminds of a vast Jewish conspiracy.  In brief, the Protocols reveal that Jews the world over have been colluding a long time to depose all monarchs, overthrow all governments, and corrupt all religions. Commanding the absolute loyalty of all Jews and marshalling the secret forces of the Freemasons and other secret societies, they bring about their goals by inciting populist revolutions and advancing liberalism, which leads invariably to socialism, and thence to communism before finally descending into anarchy and the complete destruction of civilization.

Sergei Nilus, via  Wikipedia

Sergei Nilus, via Wikipedia

Nilus offered little help in the way of determining the origin of this manuscript, offering a variety of contradictory stories. First, he asserted that a friend in the Okhrana, or Russian secret police, took it from a whole book of protocols found in a Zionist stronghold in France. In a later edition, he clarified that they had been stolen by the wife or lover of a Masonic leader in Alsace from his iron chest. Then in the 1917 edition, Nilus further explains that these were essentially the minutes of the first Zionist Congress in Switzerland in 1897, but of course, that was not a secret meeting, but rather a very public one, and the Protocols were certainly not items on the agenda there. As the story progressed, then, Nilus adjusted his story to assert that the Protocols had been stolen from the home of Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism. Regardless of which of these stories Nilus actually believed, if any, we do know that the document had been in circulation before he got his hands on it, as it was published in part by a Russian newspaper in 1903, to little notice. Such was certainly not the case after the publication of Nilus’s The Great within the Small. There is reason to think that Tsar Nicholas II himself was swayed by the Protocols. Previous to their advent, he had shown some inclination to give in to liberalism and modernization, for in 1905, with the October Manifesto, he limited his powers and established a parliament and a constitution, but afterward, he thwarted it by constantly dissolving it and enacted a broad program of anti-Jewish propaganda in conjunction with the Orthodox Church. Pogroms in that year, as the Protocols became widely read, ran rampant, claiming the lives of 3,000 Jews. Most of these pogroms were incited by the state itself through its provocateurs, the Black Hundreds, a proto-fascist group that stirred the rumor that the revolution was a Jewish conspiracy to overthrow the tsar. And after the Bolsheviks had seized control and executed the Romanov family in 1918, a new edition of the Protocols was widely distributed among the tsarist counterrevolutionary White Army. It was essentially their bible, proof that those they fought were pawns of evil Jews hell-bent on the overthrow of the world. White Army soldiers went so far as to read the Protocols aloud to any illiterates who needed indoctrination, and during the course of the next couple years, they massacred somewhere around 120,000 Jews.

It was after all of this carnage, and after White Army emissaries had distributed the Protocols abroad at the Versailles Peace Conference, thereby commencing the long history of the Protocols’ publication outside of Russia, that voices of reason began to cast doubt on the document.  In May of 1920, Dr. J. Stanjek published an analysis of the text of the Protocols that proved it was plagiarized in part directly from Hermann Goedsche’s Biarritz, who, if you recall, had himself plagiarized Dumas, making the Protocols essentially a plagiarism of a plagiarism. And shrewdly, Stanjek also predicted that other portions of the text were likely plagiarized from a French source, as they seemed a direct criticism of Napoleon III. However, this exposé was not enough to halt the spread of the Protocols, which continued to terrify and convince such memorable personages as Henry Ford in America and Winston Churchill in England

Then, sure enough, in 1921, a foreign correspondent for the Times of London stationed in Constantinople was approached by a former operative of the Okhrana in exile with a copy of a French book published in the 1860s. This book, Dialogue between Machiavelli and Montesquieu in Hell by Maurice Joly, was a thinly veiled satire of the policies and schemes of Napoleon III, and as Stanjek predicted, proved to be the source for most of the rest of the Protocols, indicating that the destructive little pamphlet was just a patchwork, a palimpsest of previous works, all fiction, that originally had nothing to do with the Jews.

Maurice Joly, via  Wikimedia Commons

Maurice Joly, via Wikimedia Commons

As scholars have since theorized, reactionary conservative members of Tsar Nicholas II’s court with connections to the Okhrana secret police—Pyotr Rachkovsky, head of the secret police, has been named—likely conceived of the Protocols as a means of turning the Tsar against the liberal influences in his court. Thus they turned to their propagandists in France, and some have identified the forger Mathieu Golovinski as a likely candidate for the Protocols’ plagiarism. Golovinski started his career manufacturing evidence for the state police and continued with the Orthodox Church’s Holy Synod, producing fake news articles for that organization’s propaganda campaign against modernization, liberalism, socialism, and, of course, what many already saw as Jewish influence on Russian society.  And later in his career, while in exile in Paris, writing false stories to be planted in the foreign press, it is theorized that Rachkovsky or some conservative member of the Tsar’s court, or perhaps one of their representatives in the Okhrana, tasked him with creating a document that would appear to be proof of a Jewish plot to modernize and liberalize Russia to terrible ends, all for the sole purpose of scaring the Tsar into a firmer and more conservative rule. 

With the exposure of the Protocols as nothing more than a plagiarized forgery as early as 1920, one would think that the distribution and influence of the document would cease, but on the contrary, The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion has become one of the most widely translated and distributed texts in the world. In Germany, Joseph Goebbels saw it as a useful tool of propaganda, and Adolph Hitler, seeming to genuinely believe it, used it extensively as the basis for his whole worldview during his rise to power, thus eventually providing a pretext for the Holocaust. Even after a Swiss court declared the Protocols false in 1935 and the U.S. Congress declared them fraudulent in 1964, they continued to be brought forth. The Ku Klux Klan, unsurprisingly, continued to distribute the document, and in 1968, an Islamic organization in Beirut published hundreds of thousands of copies in multiple languages. New editions appeared in Egypt and France in 1972, in India in 1974, in America in 1977, and in England in 1978. The late 80s saw its publication in Japan and as part of the charter of Hamas. The early 1990s saw the Protocols pop up in Mexico and Turkey and again, coming full circle, being published once more in Russia. And in the 2000s, they appeared in print in Lebanon and on Arab television in the form of a serial adaptation. And it is still touted and given credence today by white nationalist and neo-Nazi groups as well as by conspiracy theorists like David Icke. It seems that, for the powers of intolerance and fear, the Jews are simply too tempting a target of scapegoating, for not even empirical evidence and plain logic can dissuade the believers in ant-Semitic conspiracy. When it is pointed out to them that the Protocols have long been known to be a plagiarized forgery, these hateful believers reverse the logical conclusion and claim that, clearly, the Jews must have then taken their plans from this forgery, plagiarizing this plagiarism of a plagiarism. Why? Because it confirms their fear and resentment of Jews and therefore must be true. When the truths we’ve managed to find in the past are ignored by those who purposely wear blinders, then it comes as no surprise that blind spots such as these threaten to send us back to the Dark Ages.

Images from various editions of the Protocols, via University of California, Santa Barbara

Images from various editions of the Protocols, via University of California, Santa Barbara

Images from various editions of the Protocols, via University of California, Santa Barbara


My principal sources for this episode were A Lie and a Libel: The History of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion by Binjamin W. Segel and the graphic history The Plot by Will Eisner, which I highly recommend and which you can find a link to on the website’s reading list.

Bloody Libel; or, the Slaughter and Sacralization of Young William of Norwich


This installment, the first in a while because of a hiatus I was forced to take (thank you for your patience!) represents a continuation of sorts from my two-part Halloween special on accusations of devil worship through history, for if you recall, I noted that some of the accusations leveled against supposed Satanists—that of the desecration of Christian symbols and the ritual murder of children—would have been dreadfully familiar to Jews of the Middle Ages.

Jews in Christian Europe of the Middle Ages may have been the perfect target for vilification. They were perceived as holding themselves apart from almost every community in which they settled; they were the literal “other” with their distinct garb—which in later years was imposed on them by papal order—and their supposedly recognizable physical characteristics, which were often, in rumors, inflated out of cruelty or fear to include a bad smell and diabolical facial features. Their depiction in the New Testament and in Catholic traditions as the betrayers and murderers of Christ—a narrative revived every Easter—certainly singled them out for persecution and massacre during the Crusades, when some crusaders believed that killing a Jew absolved them of all sins. And when the only alternative was forced conversion, many Jewish communities made the horrific decision to commit collective suicide in order to maintain their faith and dignity.

Considering the long history of Anti-Judaism and Antisemitism, which stretches much further back than the Crusades, it is sadly unsurprising when one hears the outlandish justifications that have been trotted out at different times to rationalize atrocities committed against them: for example, the patently absurd accusation that they connived to desecrate the host. This ridiculous myth held that Jews so hated Jesus Christ that they conspired to steal consecrated host wafers from churches in order to do them physical harm by stabbing them. This, of course, was their way of murdering Jesus again, because according to the doctrine of transubstantiation, the host wafers were the literal body of Christ. A moment’s logic is enough to dismiss this, since its premise relies on the notion that the Jews themselves actually believed these arcane and ludicrous Catholic doctrines.

Medieval depiction of host desecration, via Wikipedia

Medieval depiction of host desecration, via Wikipedia

But other myths propagated to justify the persecution of Jews in the Middle Ages, while still patently preposterous, are too dark to laugh off. I refer, of course, to the persistent myth that Jews engaged in ritual murder, the so-called “blood libel.” This accusation was comparable to the rumor that they desecrated the host as from its very origins it appears as an accusation of ritually recreating Christ’s crucifixion, often through the sacrifice of a Christian child. Various motivations were offered to explain these imagined crimes, some far more foolish than others. Vaguely, it was usually asserted that their religion demanded it—a claim that few of their accusers or persecutors would have challenged, as they rarely knew much of anything about Jewish customs. A more specific and more bizarre claim eventually emerged that the Jews required Christian blood to make their matzo, the unleavened bread they had to eat at Passover. This, again, is certainly reminiscent of the accusations widely made against heretics and perceived devil worshippers in the Middle Ages, that they baked their sacrifices into wafers for the unholy communion of their black masses. But undoubtedly the most outrageous and bizarre motivations attributed to the Jews for their alleged crimes were physical rather than religious. Playing on the perception of Jews as the utterly different other, whose rites of circumcision set even their sexual organs apart, it was suggested that the Jewish male menstruated and had to replenish his blood through the sacrifice and consumption of others.  And since this hemorrhagic curse was part and parcel with the blood curse, because Jews accepted the responsibility for Christ’s death from Pontius Pilate, it was said that they must specifically consume the blood of a Christian.

This collection of myths, which drove persecution and pogroms throughout the Middle Ages and afterward and is even today, unbelievable as it may seem, hauled out of mothballs by gullible and vitriolic anti-Semites, must have begun somewhere. That is the focus of this, Episode 14: Bloody Libel, or the Slaughter and Sacralization of Young William of Norwich.

Many have looked to antiquity for the origins of the blood libel. Some point to the Hellenistic age, when Seleucid emperor Antiochus IV Epiphanes sacked the temple in Jerusalem, defiling it by sacrificing a pig on its altar and erecting in its place an altar to Jupiter. In a seasonal aside, Antiochus Epiphanes’s aggressive persecution of the Jews in ancient Judea, outlawing the practice of their faith, forbidding circumcision and selling thousands of families into bondage, eventually led to the Maccabaean revolt and the re-consecration of the Temple, an event which, along with the legend of its attendant miracle of long-burning oil, represents the basis of the Jewish holiday, Chanukah, the Festival of Lights, which as I understand it starts the day I plan to release this episode, Wednesday, December 12.

Well, according to one later account by Greek historian Posidonius (poe-see-though-nius), when Antiochus Epiphanes took the Temple in 168 BCE, he found a Greek captive there who claimed that the Jews ritually cannibalized a Greek every seven years. Needless to say, the account can neither be confirmed nor trusted, considering the gross anti-Judaism rampant among Greeks of the era, as especially demonstrated in the bitterly anti-Semitic emperor himself, and even if the story were true, in that a Greek prisoner made the claim, it would remain problematic, for considering the source, you’d have to assume the man fabricated the tale to please the emperor. Regardless of its plausibility, the tale issued forth and persisted in a few other texts, but scholar Gavin Langmuir, in his influential work on the origins of the blood libel, makes a compelling argument that not only does this tale bear little resemblance to the blood libel as it later emerged in medieval Europe, but also that books containing this obscure anecdote were few and far between, such that the myth likely did not spring from this font.

Antiochus Epiphanes spoils Jerusalem, a 1690 engraving by Wilhelm Goeree, via  Seder Olam Revisited

Antiochus Epiphanes spoils Jerusalem, a 1690 engraving by Wilhelm Goeree, via Seder Olam Revisited

In similar fashion, Langmuir dismisses another possible origin of the myth from Syria during the First Persian Empire, where intoxicated Jews at Inmestar, according to a Christian historian writing at some historical distance, supposedly tied a Christian boy to a cross in mockery of Christ, accidentally or purposely killing him in the process. As Langmuir shows, this incident was not widely recorded in texts that would have been available in medieval Norwich, England, where it is generally accepted that the first accusations of ritual murder appeared in the mid-1100s, and so could not have been their inspiration.

Other scholars continue to quibble, suggesting that the accusations made in Norwich were not made up out of whole cloth, that their inspiration can be found in the First Crusades, when Christian soldiers were shocked by the Jews’ willingness to kill not only themselves but also to sacrifice their wives and their very children rather than submit to forced conversion. Nevertheless, it appears that the incident I will now relate was the very first appearance of the blood libel, and that it emerged all at once and almost wholly formed—a notion that is deeply disturbing, for it seems somehow easier to comprehend that such an evil appeared gradually, built upon slowly throughout the ages, rather than materializing so abruptly, a sudden monster.

To understand the origins of the blood libel in Norwich, one must first consider the cultural and political context of medieval England after the Norman Conquest. Following the invasion and occupation of England by William the Conqueror, many Anglo-Saxons fled the country, and those who stayed faced something of an identity crisis. The conquest remade the country, not only physically, with structures being demolished in order to raise castles and cathedrals, but also culturally and racially, installing a new class of elites that spoke a language foreign to most. Situated near the North Sea on the River Wensum and therefore easily accessible for trade with Normandy, Norwich benefited from this change greatly. A new castle was raised, as well as a Cathedral, and a great influx of Norman merchants created a thriving burgh there. The affluence of this burgh, which had swelled to a population exceeding 10,000 and become one of the largest cities in England, drew a small community of Jews as well, plying their customary trade of money lending and injecting money into the economy through their commerce with local artisans. This was a city divided by race as well as language, for the Jews kept mainly to areas where the French-speaking Normans had settled, and there were those of Anglo-Scandinavian descent who had little contact with them and, as we shall see, held them in low regard.

Medieval Norwich, via Culture24

Medieval Norwich, via Culture24

It is important here to note that everything we know about what happened in Norwich the week of Easter 1144 we take from a decidedly biased and dubious source, the Life and Passion of Saint William the Martyr of Norwich, by Thomas of Monmouth, about whom I will have plenty to say as the story progresses. Suffice to say now that Thomas arrived in Norwich years later, and he composed his book on the events of 1144 later still. Moreover, his bias is evident to even the most credulous reader, for as can be gleaned from the title alone, Thomas was campaigning to have William of Norwich, who in that fateful year turned up dead, canonized as a saint. Nevertheless, we may deduce from Thomas’s record, considering his words as well as his omissions, what is likely to be fact and what embellishment, as Gavin Langmuir so shrewdly explores in his work.  Here I will recount the “facts” in outline before laying out the legend in its entirety as Thomas of Monmouth wrote it.

At the broken heart of this story is a boy of twelve years, an English child who bore the Norman name of William. Although he did not live at home but rather with a local man named Wulward, his family lived nearby: his mother, Elviva, and his aunt, Leviva. There were many connections with the church in his family—his grandfather was a priest; his aunt Leviva’s husband, Godwin Sturt, was a priest as well; his cousin, Leviva’s son, was a deacon; and his own brother would later become a monk—but William had taken up a trade, apprenticing himself to a skinner at eight years old. During the course of his work, he had some contact with the local Jewry. However, during Lent in 1144, the man Wulward with whom he lived and his uncle Godwin Sturt both told him not to have any more interaction with the Jews in the burgh—and here we see one of the first hints of his family’s opinion of Jews.

On March 20th that same year, a mysterious man approached William. He was the archbishop’s cook, he said, and he had some work for William. This stranger went with William to his mother’s home to ask her permission to take William to the archbishop’s kitchen, and Elviva assented after taking a little money for herself from this cook. Now after the fact and years later, when Thomas of Monmouth went about playing detective and piecing together a narrative for his Life and Passion Saint William, Elviva would say that she was suspicious of this man, and William’s aunt Leviva would make further claims of having encountered the supposed cook herself before William’s disappearance, but there is reason to doubt these claims, so I shall impart them later, as we examine Thomas’s version of events. For now, it must only be known that William vanished after supposedly going to work for the archbishop.

On Good Friday, the boy’s body was stumbled upon in Thorpe Wood, a dense and brushy forest across the river Wensum east of the city. A nun by the name of Legarda found the corpse on her return from visiting a house of lepers. William wore only his jacket and shoes. Legarda would later claim that a preternatural beam of light led her to the body’s location, and that as she watched ravens attempting to feast on his remains, she saw that his flesh was impenetrable to their claws and their beaks. Thus the tales of miracles associated with the dead child commenced, but it is certainly strange that she then went on her way rejoicing at the sight and never told anyone of the poor child’s demise or the miracle until later. Thereafter, a forester named Sprowston happened upon the body, and his observations seem keener. The boy’s head had been shaved, and there appeared to be wounds on his scalp. Perhaps the oddest detail was that some strange device had been placed in his mouth—this, it turned out upon closer inspection, was a wooden teasel. A comb- or brush-like device traditionally used on cloth to raise its nap, it was clearly a torture device, having been forced with its tines into William’s mouth.

Detail of a mural depicting a Jew kidnapping a child, via the  BBC

Detail of a mural depicting a Jew kidnapping a child, via the BBC

This was a disturbing discovery, but strangely, Sprowston went back to town. He must have told others of the body, for there are reports of curiosity seekers visiting the body over Easter weekend, like a medieval Stand By Me, but he did not return himself until Monday, whereupon he buried the boy where he lay. However, at least one visitor to the corpse seems to have recognized William and informed his family, for the next day, his uncle, Godwin Sturt, arrived to the designated spot in Thorpe Wood with his cousin and brother, disinterred the corpse, identified it as William, and reburied it in the same place. Godwin went back to tell his wife, Leviva, the sad news, and Leviva responded, seemingly apropos of nothing, by sharing a nightmare she’d recently had, one that betrays an alarming fear of Jews. In her dream, Jews surrounded her in the marketplace, clubbed her, and tore her leg off, stealing away with her limb. Why would she suddenly share her dream when told this news? Because apparently she had told him of the dream already, and as she reminded him, he had interpreted it to mean that the Jews would cause her to lose someone she loved. When Leviva and her husband shared this news with William’s mother, it seems likely they also shared their thoughts on Leviva’s supposedly prophetic dream, for Elviva promptly went about shouting that the Jews had murdered her boy.

As I mentioned in my caveat at the beginning, all of this is gleaned from Thomas of Monmouth’s Life and Passion of Saint William and therefore dubious, but if it were true, it only goes to show the malicious prejudice of this family, jumping to this conclusion on no further evidence than the interpretation of a nightmare. And indeed it seems clear that Thomas of Monmouth was not entirely putting words in their mouths, for not long after the discovery, Godwin Sturt publicly accused the Jews of William’s murder, standing before the Bishop’s synod and citing some vague and ridiculous evidence. He pointed to the dream as a premonition, and he suggested that this man who posed as the archbishop’s cook in order to kidnap William was so cunning that he must have been a Jew. He also spoke of Jewish religious practices vaguely and made unclear references to the wounds on William, but he never made the outright assertions that the Jews had crucified William as part of a profane ritual recreating Christ’s murder. That would all come later, and indeed, it may be that Thomas of Monmouth put those ambiguous and vaguely corroborative statements into his mouth in an effort to confirm the outrageous claims he would make.

The church called upon the Norwich Jews three times to come and answer the charges, but the Jews—certainly no strangers to persecution and wary of Catholic judgment—sought the counsel of the king’s representative, the sheriff, who advised them against submitting to ecclesiastical authority and ended up offering them shelter in the castle until the outcry subsided. Of course, afterwards, it would be claimed that the Jews bribed the sheriff for his protection, an accusation that simultaneously painted the Jews as guilty and the law that protected them as corrupt.

Norwich Castle, via  University of South Florida

Norwich Castle, via University of South Florida

A full month after the body’s discovery, the Bishop ordered that the boy’s body be disinterred a second time and buried a third time in the cemetery at the cathedral, where according to Thomas, monks washed the corpse and examined it further. It appeared the body had been badly burned, as if by boiling water. Moreover, as Thomas records it, these monks found indications that the boy had suffered a crucifixion similar to Christ’s, as they saw a wound on his side as well as wounds on his hands and feet that might have corresponded to being nailed to a cross. Additionally, they identified the cuts on his scalp as being from thorns and even claimed to have found pieces of the thorns still in the wounds. Of course, by the time Thomas wrote about this, he was entirely devoted to establishing a cult in William’s honor and sacralizing him as not only a saint but a genuine martyr, and this puts the entire medical examination into doubt, especially considering the boy’s corpse had been exposed to carrion for days and decomposing in the ground for a full month by the time they examined it. And even if Thomas’s account is accurate in this regard, the monks of the priory themselves may have made these claims upon examining the body for the very same reasons, for it seems the Bishop didn’t order the body moved to the cathedral until after a Prior from an abbey far away south in Sussex approached him after the synod at which Sturt had accused the Jews and offered to take the boy’s body away to his monastery, where he would build upon the legend of the boy’s death and turn him into a holy relic. So it seems even before Thomas of Monmouth arrived on the scene and began pushing for the child’s canonization, the bishops and monks of the Norwich Cathedral saw an opportunity to turn the poor murdered child into a venerated figure, something that could elevate their cathedral into a destination for pilgrimage. And sure enough, after William was moved from the woods to the monk’s cemetery, some few reports of miracles began to appear.

What else we know about the events prior to Thomas arriving and insinuating himself into the affair, and again this comes to us through Thomas’s eventual writings as well, is that two years later, around 1146, a prominent Jewish moneylender named Eleazar was murdered in Norwich by the squires of a knight who was indebted to him. According to the legend as composed by Thomas years afterward, some in the church again brought up the case, suggesting that no Christian should have to answer murder charges made by the Jews until they answered for William’s murder. Thus when Thomas arrived at the Norwich cathedral priory circa 1149, there seems to already have been a nascent movement afoot to see William canonized—at least one miracle was supposed to have been reported around that time and related to Thomas, of a virgin who, stalked by an incubus, received instruction in a vision to carry candles to William’s grave and, having done so, claimed to have been delivered from her tormentor.  And the supposed manner of William’s death was part and parcel with the growing legend of his martyrdom and surely also found its way through rumormongering to Thomas. Not only was there still a thriving belief in some circles that one or more Jews had killed the boy, but there was also a handy prime suspect in the Jewish community leader, Eleazar, who having been murdered himself could no longer answer any accusations made against him. Considering these circumstances and the fact that having the relics of a bona fide saint would not only improve the station of a cathedral but could also immortalize a monk like Thomas in folklore and religious literature, it’s clear Thomas may have seen an opportunity to serve whatever ambition a Benedictine monk like him might have had. Irrespective of his motivations, however, which might very well have sprung from genuine credulity and faith, Thomas almost immediately set about recording, and likely encouraging,  whatever reports of miracles he could find, some of which consisted of visions describing  William, crowned and attired in white, at the very feet of God Himself.

Saint William of Norwich, portrayed in all his glory, via  Wikimedia Commons

Saint William of Norwich, portrayed in all his glory, via Wikimedia Commons

Like a quintessential English detective, Thomas also went about piecing together the “facts” of the murder, interviewing witnesses and sniffing out leads. Although years had passed, Thomas somewhat dubiously uncovered a variety of new evidence in the form of eyewitness testimony of a suspiciously damning nature. For example, although she had never made the claim before, even though it certainly would have helped to prove the accusations against the Jews, William’s aunt Leviva told Thomas that the mysterious “cook” with whom William had last been seen had come with William to visit her as well, the day after paying her sister Elviva for the privilege of obtaining William’s labor, and according to her, she was so suspicious of him that she sent her young daughter to shadow them and asserted that the little girl returned to report that they’d gone into the house of a Jew.

Then, another damning report happened to fall into Thomas’s lap. Another man of the cloth, one who had been actively sharing with Thomas tales of supposed miracles associated with William’s grave, dropped quite a bombshell. He claimed to have taken the deathbed confession of one Aelward Ded, in which Ded described seeing two Jews on horseback in Thorpe Wood on the Friday before Easter 1144, recognizing one of them as the prominent moneylender Eleazar who would be murdered a couple years later. According to the supposed confession, Ded approached them because one of them carried a suspicious looking sack over the neck of his horse, which Ded touched and realized contained a body. As the tale went, the Jews fled and later bribed the sheriff to intimidate Ded into keeping what he’d seen a secret, which astonishingly he had until the day of his death.

And if all these testimonies weren’t enough to seal it, Thomas next found a Christian maidservant who had worked for Eleazar during the Easter of 1144. She reportedly took Thomas to Eleazar’s house, into which Leviva’s daughter claimed to have seen William disappear, and showed him further physical evidence of the crime. She claimed that during the week leading up to Easter, she had been called on to bring her master Eleazar boiling water, and she described peeping with one eye through a hole to see a boy child fastened to a post. Of course, like the other witnesses Thomas reports interviewing, this servant also had never told a soul for the lame reason of worrying about losing her job and being afraid of the Jews—who remember represented an extremely small portion of the population in the overwhelmingly Christian burgh. But it didn’t matter because Thomas could then claim to have seen hard evidence of the boy’s manner of death, which he had all along rather bizarrely insisted was a recreation of the crucifixion. He says he saw the holes where William was nailed to the post, but since either the wounds recorded by the monks who’d examined William’s body or the marks on the post did not seem to indicate the traditional form of a crucifixion, he was careful to explain in his manuscript that the Jews had only nailed his left hand and foot to the post and merely bound the other limbs in place. Why? Well, to avoid the appearance that the boy had been crucified, of course. Never mind that scalding him with boiling water and forcing a barbed wooden teasel into his mouth also looked nothing like crucifixion; those flourishes must also have been performed just to throw savvy investigators like Thomas of Monmouth off the trail.

Painting depicting the murder of William of Norwich, via  Wikimedia Commons

Painting depicting the murder of William of Norwich, via Wikimedia Commons

The biggest piece of “evidence” Thomas produced seems to have only been offered in Book 2 of his manuscript in order to answer those who doubted his outrageous theory. In the first book he had several times referred to converted Jews who had confided in him that sacrificing a Christian in imitation of Christ’s crucifixion was a vital Jewish tradition, but in Book 2, he revealed that it had just been one former Jew to tell him this, one Theobald of Cambridge who had become a Christian monk when he’d heard of William’s posthumous miracles. Theobald painted the picture of a vast Jewish conspiracy to ritually murder a Christian. This they did annually in accordance with their ancient scriptures, which told them that they must shed Christian blood “in scorn and contempt of Christ,” whose crucifixion had caused them to be scattered in foreign lands, and that if they did not, they would never return to their homeland and be free. Theobald spoke very specifically about how the chiefs among the Jews gathered at Narbonne, where the royal seed resided, and drew lots to determine which country among all those in which the Jews resided would be the setting for that year’s sacrifice, after which the Jews of that country’s largest city would draw lots to determine the town or city where the ritual murder would take place. And in 1144, according to Theobald, Norwich had been chosen, and all the Jews knew and accepted it. 

Now this is manifest nonsense. Scholars Jewish and Gentile alike have pored over every foundational work of Judaism, and there exists no such edict. Actually, this claim mirrors in some ways the fears of the Talmud that would appear during the next century, which based on incomplete and erroneous understandings of that collection of writings claimed that it was an anti-Christian work encouraging violence against followers of Christ. But this was a hundred years before that. And there appears to be no historical precedent for such an accusation unless one goes all the way almost 1300 years back to that Greek prisoner in the Temple with his claim that the Jews engaged in a ritual sacrifice every seven years—a claim that as I explained earlier scholars doubt Thomas of Monmouth had ever heard of! Therefore, that would make Thomas himself the origin of this very specific and despicable accusation…or the converted Jew Theobald, if such a man existed. And there is reason to believe he may have, for it turns out that there was indeed a King of the Jews at Narbonne, as Theobald had supposedly told Thomas. There exists a legend of a scholar from Babylon named Machir, who settled in Narbonne, France, with the blessing of Charlemagne to establish himself there as King of the Jews. And it is true that descendants in the Machir family enjoyed the title of “nasi” or prince. Scholars including Joseph Jacobs in 1897 and the aforementioned Gavin Langmuir have argued that Theobald must have been real, for it seems unlikely that Thomas of Monmouth would have had such knowledge of the Jewish community at Narbonne.

So, the question is, who was the true source of this blood libel? Was this notion that Jews had committed a ritual recreation of the crucifix already present among the people of Norwich, among whom there certainly were those prejudiced against Jews, as evidenced in some of the statements made by William’s family? Was it just a one-of-a-kind rumor that sprang from the fact that the murder had occurred at Easter, when the story of Christ’s crucifixion was ubiquitous? Or had it been an imaginative invention of Thomas as he wrote his manuscript in order to paint William as Christ-like in his martyrdom? And more particularly, where had the concept that Jews were compelled annually to engage in such ritual murder originated? If Theobald was real, was he led by Thomas to make such a claim? Had Thomas coaxed this lie out of him to fit a narrative he was already composing? Or conversely, was this Theobald, about whom historians know nothing else, the true author of the lie? Did he pour this poison in Thomas’s ear, causing Thomas to then force all the rest of his evidence, whether real, embellished or contrived, to conform to this implausible theory? And if so, if it is possible that the blood libel was essentially started by a Jewish man, what was his motivation to start this lie that would spread like fire and burn many of his brethren?

As with all blind spots in our history, we may never know the truth in all its particulars. But we do know that this incident seems to be the birth of this great lie, which lived on in various forms for centuries. Within a couple decades it had spread to France, and soon more dead boys were suggested to have been victims of Jewish ritual murder. However, the first time the libel resulted in the shedding of innocent Jewish blood was back in England, in Lincoln, an affair recorded by Chaucer. In 1255, an 8-year-old boy named Hugh who had gone missing was found dead on land owned by a Jew, who on the promise that his life would be spared, accused other Jews of assembling on his land to ritually kill the lad. Henry III executed this man despite the promise of sparing him and sent 91 other Jews to London for trial, putting 19 to death. On and on the blood libel spread, resulting in miscarriages of justice and massacres. The rest of the 13th century saw incidents in numerous Germanic towns and cities, and in the 15th and 16th centuries, the lie resurfaced, with accusations spreading as far as Spain and Hungary. Even after the Age of Reason, we see the Damascus Affair and the Tisza-Eszlár Affair in the mid- and late-19th century, respectively, and the Polna and Kolnitz Affairs at the dawn of the 20th century. Even after thorough debunking and condemnation by monarchs and popes alike, this dark and destructive myth lay dormant and then stirred again, over and over, to corrupt the minds of those who were blind to its history. And tragically, it would not be the only such myth to inspire distrust and persecution of the Jews, for embryonic in this accusation was one of vast, international conspiracy, a further lie that would rear its foul head in manifold ways.


I relied on several scholarly articles for this episode that I cannot easily link to, so here’s my bibliography, in MLA style because that’s what I’m accustomed to using.  :)


Cohen, Jeffrey J. “The Flow of Blood in Medieval Norwich.” Speculum, vol. 79, no. 1, 2004, pp.

26–65. JSTOR, JSTOR,

Langmuir, Gavin I. “Thomas of Monmouth: Detector of Ritual Murder.” Speculum, vol. 59, no. 4,

1984, pp. 820–846. JSTOR, JSTOR,

McCulloh, John M. “Jewish Ritual Murder: William of Norwich, Thomas of Monmouth, and the

Early Dissemination of the Myth.” Speculum, vol. 72, no. 3, 1997, pp. 698–740. JSTOR,


Rubin, Miri. "Making a Martyr: William of Norwich and the Jews." History Today, vol. 60, no. 6,

June 2010, p. 48. EBSCOhost,



The Specter of Devil Worship, Part Two

In this installment, we’ll be discussing a subject that requires an examination of the details of alleged violent crimes against children. Reader be warned.


Welcome to part two and the conclusion of our Halloween edition of Historical Blindness. When we left off, we had just examined the accusations of black sabbaths performed by witches and warlocks and considered the evidence that witchcraft as the worship of the devil was only a mad construction of the Catholic Church and its Inquisition, growing out of previous allegations made to demonize heretics. Our final thought pondered whether any of these accusations had ever been grounded in fact.

Indeed, there appear to have been some accused of witchcraft who genuinely had been practicing sorcery, or at least attempting to do so. However, where there was genuine interest in magic and its practice (insofar as magic can actually be practiced), it was not of a Satanic aspect. At this time, Arabic texts on performing magic, and specifically summoning and controlling spirits, were being translated and found a readership in the West, but far from Satanic, these grimoires originated in pagan traditions and were simply adapted by Christians seeking to try their hand at magic. And even then, rather than being performed in deference to or worship of the devil, these magical ceremonies were usually meant to summon and bind a demon to serve one’s own purposes, usually to further some ambition through the control of others or to increase one’s wealth through some alchemical miracle. Take, for example, the story of Gilles de Rais, a French nobleman and war hero compatriot of Joan of Arc who during the Inquisition’s witch craze was executed for horrific crimes as well as for evoking and having discourse with the Devil.

Born into an established French family, Gilles de Rais inherited his title of Baron of Rais, as well as great wealth and extensive property. He was a brilliant young man, with a classical education in music, science, and Latin. After two betrothals that failed due to his fiancées suddenly dying, he was married by the age of 16, and by 25 he served with distinction as the Marshal of France. He was a Christian hero, serving alongside the Maid of Orleans in bringing aid to that city and marching on both Reims and Paris, though after he died in infamy, some have tried to expunge him from French history. This may be understandable when one considers the charges for which Gilles de Rais was executed.

Portrait of Gille de Rais, via Wikimedia Commons

Portrait of Gille de Rais, via Wikimedia Commons

After the glory days of Gilles de Rais’s military career, he became profligate with his wealth, employing far too many servants, raising his own standing military forces with funds out of his own pocket, and staging expensive dramatic productions. Before long, he had squandered his fortune and sought the help of alchemists to renew it. Along with the promise of transmuting base metals into gold, however, alchemists at the time were recognized as necromancers as well by the Catholic Church, casting spells and summoning demons in order to receive their favors. Gilles de Rais, therefore, began to seek more than just regaining his wealth in his pursuit of the alchemists’ philosopher’s stone. Having seen for himself in the person of Joan of Arc how supernatural power might be wielded by those in whom it is invested, he was led to believe that perhaps the alchemists he employed could endow him with powers of a god. After some failed attempts at summoning demons, it is said that eventually his alchemists succeeded in summoning the Devil himself, and in a contract Gilles de Rais signed in his own blood, he accepted a deal with the fiend. He would receive three rewards: science, power and wealth. In return, he need not surrender his soul. Instead, he needed only to burn five children and give their hearts to Satan.

And it would seem that Gilles de Rais took to his task with relish, or that perhaps he had already indulged in the horrific pastime of child murder. Whether innocent or already guilty of such crimes before his alchemical and diabolical quest, the evidence recorded after his eventual arrest suggests that between 1432 and 1440, he murdered more than 800 children, immolating them, amputating their limbs, severing their heads, scooping out their eyes and digging the hearts out of their chests as offerings to the Devil. These children were kidnapped and delivered to him by hired abductors, who later testified to their involvement. And as his various estates and castles fell into the hands of other family members, he enlisted other hirelings to help him hide his crimes by destroying the remains of children hidden there, a task which they also would testify to completing on his behalf. And finally, Gilles de Rais himself would confess to his crimes, offering from his own mouth the estimation that he murdered and sacrificed approximately 120 little boys every year for seven long and horrifying years.

Here, certainly, it would seem, we have evidence of human sacrifice to the Devil confirmed by the findings of a court. However, let us look more closely and with an open mind. Just as before many hangers-on were only too happy to help him squander his money, as he sought help in replenishing his coffers through alchemy, there was no shortage of confidence men posing as alchemists seeking to further relieve him of the last few coins he had. And if indeed he had not engaged in child murder before his alchemical pursuits, a notion supported by the further alleged detail that he always sought to save his own soul by praying to God for forgiveness both during and after his crimes, then surely the various alchemists who encouraged him to offer these sacrifices and convinced him they were necessary were the ones truly at fault, or at least they should share the blame for these heinous crimes, if they actually occurred.

Depiction of de Rais about his murderous sorcery, via  Wikimedia Commons

Depiction of de Rais about his murderous sorcery, via Wikimedia Commons

And if these murders actually did occur, were they indeed made as offerings to Satan? If Gilles de Rais were actually a serial murderer, as some have claimed, perhaps driven by some sexual compulsion as indicated by the victimology of always targeting young boys, does this necessarily equate to devil worship? And if, instead, he only murdered these children in order to complete these arcane rituals, were they actually Satanic? As previously established, grimoires disseminating the traditions of alchemy and ceremonies for summoning demonic beings were not inherently Satanic in the sense that they derived from pagan traditions.  And even a cursory examination of the ceremonies supposedly performed with Gilles de Rais shows that there was a lack of Satanic trappings. They involved circles drawn on the floor, not black candles and upside down crosses. While some accusations were made against him of performing Black Masses, these have proven unsubstantiated.

And as for the rest of the allegations, these too appear to lack credibility when examined closely. Gilles de Rais was tried by the Inquisition, and it has been pointed out that although he had squandered much of his wealth, he still retained a massive estate in the form of castles and other physical assets that the Church and his accusers were only too happy to seize upon their forfeiture. Indeed, Gilles de Rais confessed to his crimes… but not at first. Rather, he denied them and only admitted them after three days of torture. And while we do have the testimony of his accomplices, it is also possible that they were tortured themselves, as the Inquisitors were known to torture even witnesses! For anything resembling reliable evidence, then, we must look to the physical evidence, which also is lacking here. There is no unassailable record of investigators or other officials finding bodies, but rather only witness testimony of the destruction of said corpses, which testimony may have been coerced in order to explain why there was no evidence of bodies! Even reports of missing children during that period don’t offer any corroboration, as they don’t come near the number of murders alleged and can easily be explained without resorting to blaming a Satan-worshipping nobleman and his kidnapping ring.

Therefore, yet again, accusations of human sacrifice and Devil worship break down before reasonable examination. One begins to doubt, then, that there was ever any truth to these Satanic Panics. There is, however, more to come, and indeed, the next entry in our history of Devil worship should give one pause.

In 1678, French occultism showed its pale and horrible underbelly to the light in a scandal that has been called the Chambre Ardent Affair and the Affair of the Poisons. And here at the heart of what is otherwise a murder scandal, we finally find what appears to have been a verified case of ceremonies involving the offering of children for the conjuring of demonic forces. It all started when a lawyer at a dinner party overheard a high society fortune-teller bragging about providing “inheritance powder” to people in high places, this being a euphemism for poison. As poisoning was suspected of being rampant among noblemen and their wives, the lawyer reported the incident, and police investigated, uncovering a network of fortune-tellers whose real business was selling poison and performing abortions. As the investigation drew on, however, it would uncover more than abortion and the abetment of murder and would indeed touch far too close for the comfort of King Louis XIV. Thus he drew a veil of secrecy over the whole affair, choosing to prosecute the case in a Chambre Ardent, or Burning Chamber, called such because it was entirely closed off to the light of day and lit by torches, and perhaps also because, historically, such courts had been reserved for trying heretics, and their interiors had occasionally been lit by other kinds of burnings.

As the investigation unfolded, witnesses implicated further conspirators in the Affair of the Poisons, who in turn accused other and the layers of this criminal organization were peeled back. Eventually, officials came to the heart of the matter. At the center of this network was Catherine Monvoisin, better known as La Voisin, who was known to burn the fetuses she aborted in a secret furnace beneath her house. Moreover, it came forth that she had raised an unusual pavilion on the grounds of her house as a kind of chapel. In this unhallowed place, she arranged for profane rituals to take place, hiring an old priest named Abbé Guibourg to perform them. These rituals were evocations, conjuring demons and offering sacrifice to them in return for favors. The investigation came reached all the way to the king when his mistress, Madame de Montespan, was implicated as having availed herself of these ceremonies in an effort to keep the king’s affections.

Portrait of La Voisin, via  The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Portrait of La Voisin, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art

In the Burning Chamber, in a reversal of ordinary procedures, the priest Abbé Guibourg gave his confession to a secular authority, and what he revealed struck everyone with horror. Abbé Guibourg said his twisted version of a mass on the belly of a nude woman, treating her as an altar. At the appointed time of the mass, a baby was presented to him, whose blood he shed by cutting its innocent throat. This child’s blood he poured into a chalice, calling to the demonic entities Astaroth and Asmodee to accept this sacrifice in exchange for meeting his demand, which was that Madame Montespan, present there with only a veil over her head and bosom, would continue to enjoy the amity of the king and that he would deny her nothing.

After the baby, thus drained of its blood, was taken away, its viscera and heart were carried back to the dark priest, who then ground them up for Montespan to consume as well as to slip secretly to the king. Her demand were written as follows:

…I demand the love of the King…and that the Queen shall be sterile, and the King shall leave her bed and her table for me, that I shall obtain all that I ask for me and my parents…that I shall be called to the counsels of the King, and to know what happens there…and that the Queen shall be repudiated, that I shall be able to marry the King.

The King’s mistress was never tried for her participation in these terrible rituals, but Abbé Guibourg was imprisoned for the rest of his life, along with a great many others who were involved in the Affair of the Poisons, while others were put to death, including La Voison, the woman at the head of this Satanic network, who was burned at the stake. source:

Although torture was, again, a factor in the proceedings of this Burning Chamber, the fact that the awful details of these terrible rituals were corroborated by multiple witnesses tends to lend Guibourg’s testimony credence. However, it should be noted that the babies described as being sacrificed were already dead. Providing illegal abortion services to women across Paris, La Voisin had a plentiful supply of fetuses at her disposal, so it appears that, rather than live sacrifices to dark powers, these were something more like grisly props in a disgusting theatrical production. Perhaps this is cold comfort, but again we see the specter of true devil worship becoming more and more ethereal with closer examination.

For example, the story appears at first glance to be a confirmed and proven instance of devil worship, or at least of diabolical deal-making, but consider the demons to which the priest appealed: Asmodee and Astaroth. They appear to be appropriate entities for the occasion, the former being thought to inspire lust and lechery in men and the latter known to grant friendships with great lords, but follow their history farther back and we find these figures do not even originate from Christian or even Hebrew traditions but rather from other religions, such as Zoroastrianism, and both appear to be derived from Astarte or Ishtar, a fertility goddess of Phoenician and Persian mythology. The idea that some unscrupulous priest would pretend to hold such a ceremony, drawing from centuries of lore made available in grimoire literature and thereafter promulgated by the Catholic Church and its Inquisitors, who spread everywhere the idea of such rituals existing, certainly doesn’t stretch the imagination, especially when one remembers that Abbé Guibourg was accepting payment for performing these rituals, which despite the horrendous element of using aborted fetuses as props, seem rather ridiculous in this light.

La Voison and Abbé Guibourg's Black Mass performed on Madame de Montespan, via  Wikimedia Commons

La Voison and Abbé Guibourg's Black Mass performed on Madame de Montespan, via Wikimedia Commons

Guibourg’s rituals would themselves help to mold the legend, thus perpetuating the cycle, with myth inspiring real practice that went on to fuel the myth, as thereafter reports of Black Masses, rituals parodying and profaning the Catholic Mass, most of them reflecting elements of Guibourg’s rituals with nude women as altars and the sacrifice and consumption of babies, proliferated in 18th and 19th century Europe.

One group accused of engaging in such ceremonies were the Hell-Fire Clubs of 18th century London, who have been said to hold full-fledged Satanic rituals, with black candles and inverted crucifixes, orgies in which forbidden sex of all kinds—even incest—was indulged, and, familiarly, the conjuration of the devil himself in the form of a goat or a cat. History shows, however, that the Hell-Fire Club was little more than a drinking club and themed society like the Freemasons originally formed to liven up otherwise boring and prudish Sundays with some carousing. The group took its inspiration from Rabelais’s satirical work Gargantua and the fictional monks at Thelème, whose motto was “Do what thou wilt,” a philosophy that would later influence occultists in the 20th century, who in their own turn would be called Satanists and even embrace the label, foremost of these being Aleister Crowley, but we may leave that colorful figure for another episode. It is enough here to say that The Hell-Fire Club has been rather inaccurately remembered and unfairly maligned. In reality, nothing more nefarious went on there than might be expected to occur inside the windowless rooms of your local Masonic temple.

But indeed, what might go on within those secretive enclaves? Much has been made of a nebulous and secret connection between the Masonic fraternity and the Knights Templar, suggesting that the latter actually survived their extermination by hiding among the ranks of the former and incorporating their traditions and rituals into those of the Freemasons. So then, of course, if the Templars were secretly Satanists, might not the Masons who received them and protected them be devil worshippers as well? In the 19th century, an era that saw much anti-Masonic sentiment, there arose evidence that, indeed, the Satanic Masonic conspiracy was real and more widespread than any might have imagined.

In 1885, a writer best known by the pen name Léo Taxil, who had previously been a major critic of the Catholic Church, gave up his secular crusade against them and converted to the faith very publicly. Now firmly on the Church’s side, he began to aim his pen and his sharp words at the enemies of the Pope, foremost of which was the Masonic fraternity, which Pope Leo XIII had condemned for its religious tolerance. During the course of Taxil’s crusade against Freemasonry, he claimed to have uncovered a secret Gnostic tradition, suggesting that the Masons worshiped the devil, Lucifer, as the true and misunderstood god of light, and despised Adonai, the god of the bible, as a false and cruel deity. He revealed in his writings that for many years, the original Baphomet idol of the Knights Templar had resided at the Masonic Temple in Charleston, South Carolina, the seat of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite of Freemasonry, where the Grand Master of its Supreme Council, Albert Pike—a military figure of the Mexican-American War as well as the Civil War on the side of the Confederacy, whose statue stands today in Washington, D.C.—was inspired to establish a secret Luciferian branch of Masonry there call the Reformed Palladium. The Palladists, unknown to much of the rank and file of everyday Masons, performed grotesque Luciferian rituals, which included sexual debauchery, for unlike most of Freemasonry, the Palladian Rite secretly initiated women into its ranks.

Masonic devil worship, as alleged by Léo Taxil, complete with Templar costumes and Baphomet idol, via  Freemason Information

Masonic devil worship, as alleged by Léo Taxil, complete with Templar costumes and Baphomet idol, via Freemason Information

Soon it was not Taxil alone alleging these things, as in an 1891 pamphlet, one Adolphe Ricoux published what he claimed were the theological writings of Albert Pike himself , explicating the notion that there were two gods, Adonai and Lucifer, and the Palladist Freemasons were rightly to be called Luciferians, as Satanists accepted the theology of Christianity but chose to worship evil instead of good while Luciferians rejected the entire paradigm, claiming it to be lies spread by Adonai, god of evil and darkness.

Perhaps the most frightening exposé of Palladian Freemasonry’s devil worship came the next year, when a huge serial publication called The Devil in the 19th Century was printed and disseminated. In it, one Dr. Bataille told the extraordinary story of his infiltration of the evil Palladists.

Serving as a ship’s surgeon aboard the steamboat Anadyr in 1880, Dr. Bataille had occasion to befired an Italian silk merchant named Gaëtano Carbuccia healthy and ribald atheist who during the course of his journeys appeared to transform before Bataille’s eyes into a forlorn and feeble old man. Investigating, Bataille coaxed from Carbuccia his story of becoming involved in the Palladian Rite of Freemasonry, where during one ceremony, he witnessed a séance at the altar of Baphomet over the skulls of fallen missionaries at which the shining figure of Lucifer appeared in corporeal form. Believing himself damned for his participation, he had lost all hope in redemption.

Obsessed with this story, Dr. Bataille embarked on a journey of his own that would lead him around the world and into the very heart of a palpable darkness. In Naples, he bought his way into the Masonic brotherhood, and he began his infiltration in what today is called Sri Lanka, where having insinuated himself among the Palladists there, he was taken to a hut to give his medical opinion on a bedridden woman, whom he assured them was wasted away to near death, if she was not dead already. Promptly, then, the woman suddenly rose, crawled to an altar beneath the figure of Baphomet, and allowed herself to be burned alive by the chanting devil worshipers.

Thereafter, having still not learned enough of these Palladists and their horrors, Bataille went to India, to a French colonial settlement, where once again penetrating the inner circle of Luciferian activity there, he visited a temple where worshipers surrounding Baphomet’s statue had allowed themselves to waste away until they were rotting, like living corpses supplicating themselves before the idol, their flesh ulcerating and gangrenous, faces eaten by rats. One of them tried to call out to Beelzebub, but each time he tried to speak, his eye, which hung out of its socket, fell into his mouth. When no devil was conjured, a woman was brought out and cheerfully burned her arm in hot coals. This also not successfully evoking Lucifer, they moved on to a gruesome sacrifice of a goat, and then to cutting the throat of one of the putrefying supplicants as a human sacrifice. All of the rituals failed in their object of conjuring the devil, but they succeeded in leaving Dr. Bataille sick for days.

Cover illustration of "The Devil in the XIX Century," via  Wikimedia Commons

Cover illustration of "The Devil in the XIX Century," via Wikimedia Commons

Eventually, the doctor arrived at Calcutta, where he was conducted to a mountain atop which seven temples had been built. In each of these temples, he saw countless horrors, such as baptism into a pit of writhing venomous snakes, the sacrifice of numerous animals, the spontaneous levitation and disappearance of devil worshipers, and a final ceremony in a charnel house where participants made their incantations while lying in the cold embrace of decomposing corpses.

The good doctor continued on his dark journey of initiation into Palladism, going next to Singapore, then China, and finally to the Great City of Lucifer, the Rome of Satan, Charleston, South Carolina. During the course of his infiltration, Dr. Bataille came to learn of two women who represented a struggle for the heart of Palladism. One was Sophia Walder, chief of the female order, and the other was a newcomer, Diana Vaughan. Sophia was said to keep a serpent familiar and to wield great supernatural power, having the ability of substitution, to be able to transform herself at will into other, often well-known figures. Diana also was known to levitate and bilocate, or be in more than one place at a time, and on some occasions when the demon Asmodeus was successfully conjured, he made it clear that he favored Diana and would eventually take her as his wife. The rift between these two women split the Reformed Palladium, until, like Leo Taxil himself, Diana Vaughan saw the error of her ways and converted to Catholicism. In an effort to make amends for her Satanic activity, she began to publish a serialized exposé of her own entitled Memoirs of an Ex-Palladist.

The wealth of testimony being published by Léo Taxil and others caused a resurgent Satanic Panic and Anti-Masonic movement at the end of the 19th century, such that Taxil even had an audience with and support from Pope Leo XIII.  After Diana Vaughan’s conversion and the publication of her memoirs had begun, many in the press demanded to interview her, and in 1897, Léo Taxil arranged a press conference at the Geographical Society, promising that Diana Vaughan would finally present herself to the public. At the appointed time, Taxil spoke to the gathered crowd… and explained that he had perpetrated one of the greatest hoaxes in modern history. Not only was Diana Vaughan an invention of his, but so was Dr. Bataille and Adolphe Ricoux and all of the awful details about the Reformed Palladium, which he had fabricated. Even his conversion to Catholicism had been part of the hoax, which was all calculated to make a fool of the Pope and the Catholic Church. Calling it a “joyous obfuscation,” he predicted that it would be met with “a universal roar of laughter.” “Palladism,” he said, “my most beautiful creation, never existed except on paper and in thousands of minds! It will never return!”

Léo Taxil, looking rather pleased with himself, via

Léo Taxil, looking rather pleased with himself, via

But of course it did, though perhaps not under the same name. Not even a hundred year later, the Satanic Panic in America had people believing again in secret cemetery conclaves and far-reaching diabolical conspiracies. This is the nature of historical blindness. When blind spots persist in our past, and when we turn a blind eye to the lessons to be learned there, we fall into the most foolish of patterns and repeat some of the most shameful passages in history. To quote a writer who himself was considered a Satanist“The Devil’s best trick is to convince us that he does not exist.” On the contrary, considering the death and suffering that resulted from accusations of witchcraft and devil worship throughout history, it would seem his greatest victory was in convincing the world that he did exist.

The Specter of Devil Worship, Part One

In this installment, we’ll be discussing a subject that requires an examination of the details of alleged violent crimes against children. Reader be warned.


For this Halloween edition of Historical Blindness, we’ll be exploring a horror trope that that has been popular in Hollywood ever since the 1968 Roman Polanski classic, Rosemary’s Baby. We’ll be looking at Satanism and the historical basis for the widespread belief that there exists a vast conspiracy of devil worshipers who engage in profane and horrifying ceremonies at the behest of their dark lord. Of course, many today still remember the moral crisis of the 1980s, the so-called Satanic Panic, in which allegations of Satanic Ritual Abuse proliferated. Although the consensus today is that such prevalent secret rituals likely never happened and were instead simply the imaginings of troubled minds encouraged by the suggestions of irresponsible psychologists and law enforcement professionals, there yet remain many people, especially among evangelical Christians, who firmly believe that such Satanic conspiracies exist to this day and stretch much further back in history than the ’80s. The question at hand, then, is the truth of this proposition. What is the history of Satanism, and how accurate are the allegations regarding its rituals and practices? Indeed, has it ever truly existed as represented in popular culture? Thank you for joining us for part one of our in-depth investigation into The Specter of Devil Worship.


What the Satanic Panic was seems apparent enough simply from its apt name, a moral panic over Satanism. But without some understanding of this phenomenon’s dimensions—its prevalence and most telling characteristics—one cannot begin to appreciate the extraordinary features of this moral panic, which was much more than mere urban legend and gossip among conservative busybodies. This panic involved accusations of widespread physical abuse of children, ritualized in occult ceremonies, with implications of massive conspiracy and organized murder. Some might separate the Satanic Panic from the Child Abuse Panic, differentiating between cases alleging only the abuse of children and those that claimed Satanic rituals were a major component, but in truth most cases of the former kind, like the McMartin Preschool case, usually ended up transforming into cases of the latter kind as further allegations came out. These accusations, were made by the children themselves, more often than not, during poorly conducted interviews and therapy sessions involving hypnosis, recovered memories and a great deal of suggestion and leading questions, and were met with astonishing credulity, encouraged by community organizations such as Believe the Children. Those accused of child abuse and the somehow even more nefarious Satanic Ritual Abuse, or SRA, in some cases are even still serving time for crimes alleged during this roundly discredited phenomenon. This panic, at its height, became institutionalized and systemic, with entire wings law enforcement devoted to rooting it out according to established best practices, with actual specializations cultivated among psychologists who consulted on such cases and with concrete legislation enacted to make it easier for children to make accusations without having to face those they accused or testify in open court.  

The leading psychiatrist in this field was one Lawrence Pazder. It was he who codified the concept of Satanic Ritual Abuse, and he was the most prominent consultant to law enforcement in cases where it was suspected. Pazder derived his authority on the subject from the fact that he had treated a woman named Michelle who claimed to have experienced Satanic Ritual Abuse in perhaps the first and certainly the most distressing such case. Pazder published a book on the topic in 1980, titled Michelle Remembers, thereby kicking off the Satanic Panic.

A photo of Michelle Smith taken by Pazder during a session, via  National Post

A photo of Michelle Smith taken by Pazder during a session, via National Post

Michelle first came to Dr. Pazder’s office in 1976, referred to his psychiatric care by her physician after having suffered a miscarriage. After losing her child, she had continued to hemorrhage without any apparent physical reason, causing her doctor to suspect her troubles were psychogenic. A pretty, dark-haired 27-year-old woman, she lay on Pazder’s couch and spoke to the doctor about her dreams, disturbing dreams about spiders coming out from under skin, a nightmare that Pazder viewed as symbolic of some deep horror she held inside. After some months of therapy, his suspicions were confirmed when a deep well of emotion suddenly burst during a session and Michelle screamed uncontrollably for almost half an hour before reverting to a childlike state. Then, over the course of many sessions, she recovered vivid memories of being abused by groups of people wearing black, holding black candles, in rooms draped with black cloth. In these ceremonial sessions, she was sometimes violated by having foreign objects, “colored sticks,” forced into her, and once she was given an enema so that her abusers could more easily compel her to defecate on a Bible and a crucifix. During these rituals, she was also confronted with death in horrifying ways, watching participants tear living cats apart with their teeth, seeing dismembered corpses stitched together and galvanized into twitching by electrical shock, being forced to lie in a coffin with a decaying corpse. And most sickening were her claims of the cultists’ use of dead babies. They were known to cut them in half over her and to rub their severed body parts on her. During one climactic ceremony, they placed Michelle inside a hollow statue, naked. Inside the statue with her were live snakes and parts of dead babies, which she was made to force through an opening, to their vile delight, pushing them out of the statue’s mouth.

Certainly an appalling story, but was it true? Some particulars actually defy belief. Beyond dramatic mystical flourishes like the appearance of such supernatural beings as Satan, mantled in flame, and Mary, clothed in light, there are unusual elements of her recollections that bear the quality of dream or nightmare: items appearing out of nowhere, giant spiders and bats like images on Halloween decorations, and impossible occurrences such as snakes actually emerging from Michelle’s own body. And what were Dr. Lawrence Pazder’s reasons for believing them? Simply that he felt their truth.

After the book’s publication, it became a sensation, and within three years, allegations of SRA were widespread and the Satanic Panic was in full swing, with specials on major primetime news magazine and talk shows helping to spread the fear like a virus. But in 1989, voices of reason began to emerge when an FBI agent published a book critical of law enforcement’s handling of such cases, and in 1990, The Mail on Sunday out of London published an investigative piece that helped to finally debunk Michelle Remembers. The article profiled Michelle, telling of her life since the book, how she had married Dr. Pazder and made a career with him on the lecture circuit. Then it tracked down her father, who had quite a bit to say about the veracity of her story. In the book, Pazder says she claimed that her mother introduced her into the Satanic cult ceremonies and took part herself as a dazed and passive, perhaps drugged, participant. Michelle’s father, however, insisted that her mother was kind and gracious churchgoing woman whose memory her daughter has forever befouled. He offered some insight into some of Michelle’s recovered memories, pointing to the actual, far tamer incidents that may have inspired them, and thereby painted a clear picture of a mentally ill woman taken advantage of by an irresponsible mental health professional that saw a variety of opportunities in her lurid imaginings.

Lawrence Pazder and Michelle Smith, via Getty Images

Lawrence Pazder and Michelle Smith, via Getty Images

So today the Satanic Panic is dismissed by empirical and reasonable thinkers as a tissue of lies and paranoia. But of course, the 1980s was not the first time anyone had ever heard of Satanism. Had it ever been real? Had evil people ever sacrificed babies at the altar of the fallen angel Lucifer? In order to consider this question, one must study a great swathe of history, all the way back to the Middle Ages, when the specter of Devil Worship first appeared in earnest.

To understand the history of accusations of devil worship, we must go all the way back to the Middle Ages, when the Catholic Church saw a number reform movements started that the church proper considered heretical. These were Gnostic sects, which held that there were two gods, one of the old testament and one of the new, and that all flesh was evil, which in some cases led to extreme asceticism and in others to carnal excess. Gnostic traditions had long been the enemy of Catholicism, with the church having legislated against them almost a thousand years earlier at the Council of Nicea.  A Gnostic sect of the Middle Ages sprang up in Orléans, where it is said some ascetic clergy that encouraged vegetarianism and celibacy also developed some divergent doctrinal ideas. Before long, the Catholic Church spread the further accusation that this sect engaged in orgies while the very devil looked on, and that they murdered the children born of these unions, burned them and used their ashes to turn others into heretics. Here we have one of the first descriptions of what might later be termed a Black Mass, complete with a profanation of the Eucharist by the baking of dead children into the bread. Historians, however, view these allegations as dubious, for such accusations had been around a long time before this, directed first at Jews in the form of the Blood Libel, and then later at early Christians themselves by the Romans

As the Middle Ages went darkly on, further Gnostic sects appeared, many of these also in France, a place that would see a great many Satanic Panics of its own throughout history. In the 13th century, the Gnostic traditions resurged in the form of Catharism. These too were devout ascetics who had the audacity to espouse dualist beliefs and criticize the Church of Rome, which in response launched military crusades to extirpate them, and when that failed, established a system of Inquisition by which suspected heretics could be tortured and burned at the stake. Perhaps to assuage the guilt Inquisitors felt at persecuting what seemed to be fervently religious people, certain legends sprang up around the Cathars. While previously it had been understood that their traditions were of the devil in that, being heretical, they surely pleased the adversary of God, eventually these notions became quite literal, with rumors of actual devil worship. It was said that the devil approached them in various forms, such as that of a horrible toad. Then he came to them as a cat to be worshipped, which they obliged by kissing the cat’s anus, a practice, some said, that inspired the name Cathar. After this, in line with previous allegations, it was said they had orgiastic sex and ate any children that issued from these sexual encounters. The Medieval Inquisition seemed to find heretics everywhere, and this may be easier to fathom when one considers that the church forced those condemned as heretics to forfeit all their property not only to their Inquisitors, but also as a kind of reward to those who had accused them. And while many of these accused heretics admitted their devil worship to their Inquisitors, these confessions were extracted by torture and therefore dubious in the extreme.

The devil directing Cathars to kiss a cat's anus, via

The devil directing Cathars to kiss a cat's anus, via

The Inquisition did not disappear with the Cathars, either. In the early 14th century, the King of France, Philip the Fair, accused a very prominent religious-military order called the Knights Templar. This order had been established after the First Crusade to provide protection to Christians making pilgrimage to the Holy Land and was approved as an official order by the Catholic Church itself. Nevertheless, the Inquisition responded to King Philip’s accusations with alacrity, and the confessions that emerged from the Templars’ trial painted the picture of a truly diabolical society. There were, of course the traditional charges leveled against heretics, that of dishonoring the cross and engaging in licentious sex, which as a fraternal organization, was alleged to be sodomy. They were even accused of worshiping a cat like the Cathars! But it is another accusation of idolatry which has proven the most long-lived and damning. The Knights Templar were accused of worshiping an idol in the form of a head that was named Baphomet at their trial, and ever since, this has become an alternate name for the devil, alongside Satan, Lucifer and Beelzebub. But what was this Baphomet, really? Based on some descriptions of it as a bearded head, it has been suggested that it was as innocent as an image of Christ, and variously, based on a similarity between name, it has been identified with Mohammed. But the idol was also described as being many-headed or having multiple faces, which might suggest a depiction of the Trinity or the dualism of Gnostic thought. However, the fact is there doesn’t appear to even be any proof that this image, whatever it was, had even been venerated by the Templars, for any number of relics representing a variety of traditions may have been discovered in the temple of this order, perhaps acquired during the Crusade and kept as curiosities, or perhaps deposited there by someone else. It was, indeed, common practice for the Knights Templar to store and protect the valuable property of merchants and noblemen alike, and they had become a kind of medieval bank, a fact that many historians suggest is the true reason for the accusations Philip the Fair made against them. The king was in dire financial straits, a fact that had precipitated riots that had driven him to take refuge with the Templars themselves! By leveling accusations against the wealthy Templars, accusations he knew they would confess to under torture, Philip essentially arranged the redistribution of their wealth to himself and the church. And his gambit succeeded; though most of the Templars thereafter recanted their confessions, they were burned at the stake regardless.

Knights Templar being burned at the stake, via

Knights Templar being burned at the stake, via

Already one detects a pattern, one that should be familiar to even the lay student of history: that of the “witch hunt.” And in the 15th century, we have the European witch craze itself, during which the Inquisition asserted that women, frequently midwives, actually flew by night astride their enchanted broomsticks to sabbats whereat they engaged in promiscuous sex with each other as well as with demons, eating the children that issued from these unholy unions, of course, and performing heinous magic to do mischief against the god-fearing, destroying their crops and sickening their children. There was, indeed, almost no misfortune that could not be blamed on the evil doings of local woman. In order to give a clearer picture of the devil worship and Satanic rituals alleged of these witches, let us consider the following description of a sabbat as it was first recorded in the Compendium Maleficarum, an Italian witch-hunting manual published 121 years after the scene it details:

In 1594, a young woman from Aquitane is reported to have stood trial before the Parliament of Bordeaux. Described as appearing intelligent, she confessed, without being subjected to any torture, to her corruption by a particular man, who had led her to a field and drawn a circle upon the ground with while reading aloud from a black book. After this ritual, a great, black goat, with a black candle burning between its horns, appeared in the company of two women and another man, this one wearing the vestments of a priest. The goat spoke, inquiring about her, and her corrupter answered, saying she had been brought there to become one of the goat’s subjects. Approving, the goat demanded they all make their veneration: making the sign of the cross with the wrong hand and approaching to lift the goat’s tail and kiss its anus. The next time she was taken to the field, a tress of her hair was cut and presented to the goat as a sign that she was his bride, whereupon the goat led her to the woods and violated her painfully. She was struck with horror at the sensation of the goat’s semen, which was ice cold.  

The girl from Aquitane described numerous subsequent rituals in the field, some of which appeared to be a profane reenactment, or mockery, of the Mass, the first recorded description, in fact, of the Black Mass. In this ceremony, their corrupted priest raised a slice of turnip dyed black in place of the Eucharistic Host, and offered a chalice filled with water rather than wine. In place of Holy Water, each was anointed with the diabolical goat’s urine, and the rite concluded with every witch reporting on the spells, curses and poisons they had used against unsuspecting innocents.

A dark and disgusting rite, if it were true, but of course if one were to believe such a tale despite the incredible detail of the talking goat with the icy seed and the uncanny similarity of the ritual with that of Cathars accused of kissing a different animal’s rear end, one has to confront the problem of how and why such accusations were made and spread, and how such confessions were extracted. Almost invariably, this was by means of torture. Now in this instance, we have the claim that the confessor was not subjected to torture, but regardless, when torture was so liberally resorted to as a means of drawing out what Inquisitors wanted to hear, it was no less a factor when only a threat. This girl of Aquitane may have given the Inquisitors the tale of an awful sabbat that they expected just to avoid torment. In this way, torture, whether it be applied or merely threatened, corrupts all testimony.

Witches kiss the posterior of a goat-headed devil at their sabbat, via

Witches kiss the posterior of a goat-headed devil at their sabbat, via

But these days, with Western culture’s modern fascination with the witch craze, the reasonable judgments of historians have prevailed upon public imagination, such that most now accept witch hunts for what they were. We understand that these so-called witches were midwives and innocent old women caught in webs of lies and accusations made by townsfolk looking for scapegoats as well as by other accused looking to save their own skins, literally. On some occasions, as well, we see that herbal healers were seen as brewers of potions and casters of spells and curses, the witch at the cauldron, as it were, when in reality they were little more than mixers of ointments and makers of poultices. There is evidence as well that these herbalists dabbled in the use of hallucinogenic drugs, derived from herbs such as hemlock, nightshade and mandrake. These were likely to cause illness when ingested orally, but could be safely taken by applying it to the mucous membranes of the female genitals. Their applicator of choice? A broomstick, greased with their hallucinogenic ointment. This they would straddle naked, and in their minds, they soared beyond the clouds. Thus some witches, confessing to their nightly flights on broomsticks, may have been telling the truth as they understood it, but they appear to have been guilty only of substance abuse rather than of devil worship.

Here, at the height of the witch craze and the Medieval Inquisition, we shall end part one of our examination of the Specter of Devil Worship. Already we can discern a pattern of false accusations and pious outrage resulting in the spread of rumors of diabolical rituals and the veneration of evil. Can it be that the entire phenomenon never existed? Is it possible that purposeful distortion of the truth, in combination with innocent credulity, has led to the perpetuation of a vast legend throughout history? Or were there cases of actual devil worship and genuine demonic sorcery?

Join us on Halloween for Part Two, in which we’ll dive even deeper into the history of devil worship.

Jubal Early's Lost Cause

human confederate flag postcard.jpg

Welcome to a very special episode installment of Historical Blindness. It has been a full calendar year since I started this project. At the time, we were in the full throes of an awful presidential election year, and although I had envisioned this blog as a study of history’s weaknesses by telling the stories of mysteries we still can’t solve and false history that misleads us to a misunderstanding of the past, I chose to make my first post overtly political, looking at a demagogue who stirred up anti-immigrant sentiment because I felt and still feel strongly about any politician that rises to power by fomenting violence and dividing us.

Now, a year later, and I’m starting to see the term "historical blindness" thrown around quite a bit in the news. Ever since the sad events at Charlottesville, and more specifically since Donald Trump’s equivocation over who was at fault for the violence that took place, when he painted both sides as equivalent and defended the sentiment that Confederate monuments should not be toppled, suggesting that Robert E. Lee was as important a figure as George Washington, or at least that the two were equally immoral in condoning and engaging in slavery--or in Lee’s case, defending it through military insurrection--I have been getting Google alerts for a variety of articles in which the term I thought I coined for the title of this blog keeps showing up to describe this distortion or purposeful misunderstanding the past.

Therefore, yet again, a year in and almost a year since that fateful presidential election, and I feel I must address a very hot button issue. To any readers and friends from the South, if you feel affronted by this subject matter or the assertions I make, I implore you to read with an open mind, to check for yourself the sources I’ll provide on the website’s reading list, and, true to the purpose of this podcast, to question received history. Indeed, our topic falls squarely within the purview of this project's theme, for the very notion that Robert E. Lee should be lionized as an equal to our founding fathers is part and parcel with a distorted view of the Confederacy that has been touted ever since the end of the Civil War and which led to these monuments being erected in the first place. The veneration of Robert E. Lee, however, was only one aspect of this false narrative, which can be traced back to one man, a commander of Confederate troops and thereafter a fugitive and a “historian,” though I use the word loosely and with irony. This false historian, through his assiduous misrepresentation of the facts, almost single-handedly succeeded in changing the way many would think about the character and motivation of the South, even in the North, and in modern day, among the lay public as well as historiographers. This is the story the man who proved that history is not always written by the victors. Thank you for keeping an open mind as I relate the story of Jubal Early’s Lost Cause.


Confederate Pictorial Envelope, 1861, via  Civil Discourse

Confederate Pictorial Envelope, 1861, via Civil Discourse

Odds are that at different times in your life, you’ve heard two competing narratives about the reasons for the secession of the South and the subsequent Civil War. Maybe you’ve heard that it was all over slavery; that’s clear enough for any child to understand. And perhaps, in a history class or in some intent conversation with a confident friend, you learned that this was an oversimplification, and that it was really about question of state’s rights versus the sovereignty of the federal government. Well that certainly does make the struggle of the Confederacy seem more justified, then, and maybe even downright noble, doesn’t it? And it’s a great perspective to take when you want to seem smarter than others in the room, telling them that they’re oversimplifying a more complicated matter and villainizing the rebels. But what if it really was just that simple? What if Southern states did only secede in a bid to preserve an economy predicated on a system of human bondage that it saw as being under attack by the North? Indeed, the first states to secede did so in direct response to the election of an abolitionist president in Abraham Lincoln, and any who doubt that the perpetuation of slavery was the central impetus for secession would do well to examine secessionist pamphlets then in circulation, such as one titled “The Doom of Slavery in the Union: Its Safety Out of It.” Those who argue that most Southerners did not own slaves and therefore wouldn’t have fought for the institution discount the motivation of ambition, as even poor subsistence farmers had plans of eventually running large plantations with slave labor, a fact clearly appealed to in another secessionist pamphlet, “The Interest in Slavery of the Southern Non-Slaveholder,” which bore the subtitles, “The Right of Peaceful Secession” and “Slavery in the Bible.”  To those who might point to another secessionist pamphlet, “The South Alone Should Govern the South,” as proof that state sovereignty was at least an aspect of their argument, it would behoove them to read on to that publication’s subtitle as well, which reads, “And African Slavery Should Be Controlled by Those Only Who Are Friendly to It.” Indeed, one only has to look at the verbiage present in the first Ordinance of Secession, ratified by South Carolina, where all these pamphlets were published. In their “Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union,” delegates cite “an increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the institution of slavery,” in particular decrying interference with the return of fugitive slaves to bondage. The second state to secede, Mississippi, stated their reasons even more flatly: “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery — the greatest material interest of the world.” And in their “declaration of the causes which impel the state of Texas to secede from the federal union,” delegates from that state gave one of the most racist and awful rationales for secession: “We hold as undeniable truths that the governments of the various States, and of the confederacy itself, were established exclusively by the white race, for themselves and their posterity; that the African race had no agency in their establishment; that they were rightfully held and regarded as an inferior and dependent race, and in that condition only could their existence in this country be rendered beneficial or tolerable.

Therefore, it seems apparent that indeed Southern states attempted to dissolve the Union and met the United States armed forces in open military rebellion for the essential reason that they wished to preserve the institution of slavery. So then where did this notion come from that it wasn’t about slavery at all? How did this narrative of the nobility of the Southern cause emerge? Where did the idea that they were simply fighting for freedom against an oppressive central government originate? The truth is that this take on the Confederacy really only came out after the fact, and maybe this is understandable. People have a tendency to view the past through rose-tinted lenses and with hindsight find ways to justify even the most reprehensible behavior. So perhaps this conception of Southern motivation developed naturally among many Southerners during Reconstruction and just happened to find its way into mainstream historical thought. But the truth is that we actually can trace the creation of this myth, which stands as only one among a chain of lies and misrepresentations, perpetrated by one man before being disseminated by others, in order to recast the past in a light favorable to the South and thereby tell a different story to future generations

Jubal Early in Confederate military garb, via  Wikimedia Commons

Jubal Early in Confederate military garb, via Wikimedia Commons

Jubal Anderson Early was something of a curmudgeon and an elitist. The son of a slaveholding Virginia family, it appears he may not have owned any slaves himself, but with ideas about the glory of the Southern past and the aristocratic gentility of prominent Southern families, he was known to doggedly support the rule of the landed slaveholding class. As a Whig, he was something of an outsider among Virginia Democrats, and indeed he found himself standing in opposition to secession, but when he could not stand against the rising tide of history, he exchanged party politics for devotion to the Southern and Confederate cause. As a veteran of the late Seminole Wars in Florida as well as the Mexican-American War, he offered his “own head on the block as a willing victim for the good of the Commonwealth,” becoming an important lieutenant of Robert E. Lee and commanding troops in numerous battles.

His subordinates and peers knew Early as a cantankerous and quarrelsome old cuss, earning himself the nickname “Bad Old Man.” He had ever been an outsider and contrarian, living as a bachelor, yet fathering children with a 16-year-old girl and, flouting all societal customs, giving his name to his bastard issue. He has been called “startlingly profane,” and is credited with wielding an “acid tongue” when criticizing his underlings and fellow commanders. And yet, for someone so outspoken and critical of others, his record of military command is spotty at best. At the First Battle of Mannassas, he proved himself as a brigadier by routing Union Forces, but at the inconclusive Battle of Williamsburg, he lost many men and sustained an injury himself that took him out of commission for a while. After his recovery, he earned distinction over the course of several battles and received promotion to major-general but thereafter failed to distinguish himself as a commander and contributed to the Confederate defeat at Gettysburg. During the second Shenandoah Valley campaign, Early led a successful invasion of Maryland, but pulled up short of the capital, failing to make the decisive push into Washington that many believe he might have. Finally, after Early’s loss of three battles in a row and his utter defeat Waynesboro, General Lee relieved him of his command, but he did so with such tact, treating him with such respect, that he retained Early’s highest esteem and undying loyalty. 

After the war, Jubal Early remained an unreconstructed rebel, and he fled to Cuba disguised as a farmer, rather than remain to endure the yoke of Yankee governance. Afterward, while living in Mexico, Early received a letter from Robert E. Lee that indicated the general wanted to write about the war and needed whatever relevant documents Early might have kept, for he believed it important to “transmit, if possible, the truth to posterity, and do justice to our brave Soldiers.” While Jubal Early had already been collecting his own thoughts about the late conflict and formulating his decidedly skewed perspective, which he expressed in letters during that time, this request from Lee proved to be the impetus he needed to begin his compositions in earnest. Within a few short months, Jubal Early had drafted a memoir in which can be seen the beginnings of his Lost Cause ideology. He continued to write while in Mexico, and thereafter in Canada, and by 1869 he had returned to Virginia, where he joined the Southern Historical Society. This organization he essentially transformed into an organ for propaganda, publishing 52 volumes of papers over a decade, laying out his Lost Cause mythology. This ambitious undertaking, an effort “to construct the archives in which shall be collected…memoirs to serve for future history,” was largely successful at influencing historians over the next century.    

Fugitive Jubal Early in disguise as a farmer, via  Wikimedia Commons

Fugitive Jubal Early in disguise as a farmer, via Wikimedia Commons

This Myth of the Lost Cause that Jubal Early and his collaborators promulgated comprised a few principal notions. One of these I’ve already discussed—the claim that states didn’t secede to preserve slavery but rather to preserve states’ rights in the face of federal tyranny. Another is not even worth considering seriously: the claim that slavery was an overall benevolent institution, in which slaves were treated kindly and fairly and protected from the cruelties of life outside of bondage. This lie can be countered with even a cursory reading of any slave narrative, all of which unfailingly enumerate the many cruelties and evils of the institution. Moreover, this is the same lie traditionally fed to the slaves themselves to scare them out of attempts at escaping to freedom.

The rest of the tenets of the Lost Cause also promote a conception of the Confederacy as noble rebels rather than as traitors fighting to maintain their racist system of human subjugation, and these contribute directly to the continued reverence for Confederate leaders we see today, for they paint Confederate commanders and soldiers as underdog heroes. They claim that not only was it a Lost Cause, but it was also a hopeless cause, as Southerners were desperately outnumbered by Union forces yet fought and gave their lives regardless, depicting them as true martyrs. The myth goes that Confederate forces only won as many battles as they did because Robert E. Lee was one of the most brilliant tacticians in history. And not only were Robert E. Lee and his soldiers the underdog heroes of the Civil War, but also Union general Ulysses S. Grant was nothing more than a clumsy butcher who only succeeded against the Confederacy through the waging of “total war,” using his superior numbers to slaughter them in a most ungentlemanly way.

Some of these claims I won’t even bother to address. Firstly, the idea that the Union was only able to defeat the Confederacy through brute force and unprecedented tactics seems to contradict the notion that the war was unwinnable for the South. It seems like they’re saying, “There’s no way we could’ve won,” then turning around and saying, “You only won by not fighting fair!” And Jubal Early himself should not have been decrying the tactics of his enemy, as he relied on some morally questionable strategies himself. For example, in Maryland, when the residents of a certain town didn’t greet him happily and offer support and reinforcements, he threatened to burn their town to the ground unless they paid a ransom of $200,000, which today would be about $3 million.

The truth is that many historians today believe that the South, while certainly outnumbered, could very well have won the war, or at least achieved a stalemate. They might have successfully sought international support, but instead they failed in foreign diplomacy. And they might have increased their military forces through the emancipation and enlistment of their own slaves, but they remained steadfastly devoted to maintaining the institution of slavery—because, of course, that was their principal reason for fighting—and so they lost.

We must, however, examine the idolization of Robert E. Lee, for it is so relevant today in our discussion of Confederate monuments. President Trump, in his egregious reaction to the events at Charlottesville, suggested an equivalence between George Washington and Robert E. Lee and told press that they were “changing history.” This is not only a distortion, it’s a reversal of the truth. Confederate monuments venerate not the man Robert E. Lee, but rather the myth that Jubal Early and his Southern Historical Society erected in his place. In their estimation, Lee was a not only a noble gentleman and a scholar but also an unparalleled military mind that could do no wrong. At times, praise of Lee bordered on religious, as if Early and his accomplices were trying to deify him in memory. But one fact remained to trouble their depiction of Lee: the fact that he lost the important battle of Gettysburg. This Early explained by offering a scapegoat. Perfect and godlike general that Lee was, there was no way he could be at fault for the loss, so Early blamed his lieutenants, and one in particular, James Longstreet, who he claimed refused to carry out Lee’s orders and thereby lost the battle for the South. This resulted, as some historians have phrased it, in “a historiographical puzzle, involving a total ‘rewriting’ of the Gettysburg saga by former Confederates.” In truth, however, James Longstreet seems to have been unjustly maligned. Lee alone can be held responsible for the command decisions as well as the conduct of those he commanded at Gettysburg, and there is historiography that argues convincingly that Longstreet actually provided wise counsel that Lee ignored. If one were going to spread the blame around to underlings, then Jubal Early himself would need to shoulder some of it, as would others. 

This statement of Trump’s was not the first time that Washington and Lee have been compared, either. One needs look no further than Washington and Lee University in Lexington, VA, to see the two figures honored together. And this was the case in 1890, when during a grand parade in Richmond, VA, in which pictures of Washington and Lee had been hung side by side, a huge statue of Robert E. Lee was hauled through the streets of Richmond by people rather than draft animals, after the manner in which George Washington’s statue had been hauled through the same streets more than thirty years earlier, It was an impressive affair that celebrated the Lost Cause view of the war, with Jubal Early parading on horseback and speechifying, and the pariah James Longstreet was present as well, though not nearly so welcome. Events such as these, arranged and promoted by Jubal Early and his Historical Society as well as other veterans and those sympathetic to the Lost Cause view of the war, strengthened for posterity the myth of the nobility of the Confederate cause and ensured the magnification of Lee as a figure to be revered alongside the founding fathers.

The unveiling of the statue in Rochmond, via the Library of Virginia

The unveiling of the statue in Rochmond, via the Library of Virginia

About four years later, Jubal Early died falling down some stairs, but the propaganda machine he had set in motion continued to move and build momentum. When other veterans of the Civil War began to die off, an organization called the United Daughters of the Confederacy launched a campaign that would see a great number of Confederate monuments built during the early 1900s, not coincidentally just during the formalization of Jim Crow segregation laws, in a clear effort to whitewash the past and to establish a dominant culture of white supremacy. And then again, a backlash against the passage of the Civil Rights Act saw yet more of these monuments to a false history erected

This is quintessential historical blindness, a false and indeed purposely distorted narrative that has been systematically disseminated in an effort to control the public’s perceptions of a region’s shameful past. The apologists of Dixieland have for more than a 150 years refused to face historical truth, instead relying on lies and misdirection, imploring anyone who does attempt to scrutinize their history to, as the song says, “look away, look away, look away.”



I relied on a couple of fantastic books as sources for this episode, including a collection of essays entitled The Myth of the Lost Cause and Civil War History and a book similarly titled the Myth of the Lost Cause by Edward H. Bonekemper III. Find links to these books on Amazon through our Episode Reading List

Blind Spot: The Loss of Theodosia Burr Alston

theodosia on plank.jpg

In the last installment, I told the story of the Trial of the Century at the dawn of the 1800s, a murder mystery with Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr at its heart, defending an innocent man against awful calumnies. Despite winning their client an acquittal that the public generally praised as justice, a myth has arisen around the trial suggesting that Burr and Hamilton set a guilty man free, a legend helped by the fictional account of the Quakeress boardinghouse-keeper’s wife, Mrs. Ring, confronting the men before the courthouse to curse them for their part in freeing the murderer of her cousin, Elma Sands. This is an apocryphal tale produced by a relative of the Rings in a novel years later, but it has done much to shape the memory of the event, and when one considers the subsequent hardships and tragedies suffered by the supposedly cursed men, the tale certainly gives one pause. The troubles of Aaron Burr, in particular, grew and compounded over the next decade until he was dealt his most grievous blow. This is the story of that misfortune: the Loss of Theodosia Burr Alston.

At first, following the Weeks Trial, things went splendidly for Burr. His gambit of forming a bank masquerading as a municipal Water project brought a lot of merchants and middle class voters into the Democratic Republican fold, and his tireless canvassing ended up getting his party’s slate of candidates elected. In turn, their man, Thomas Jefferson, took the presidency, and Burr himself took the Vice-Presidency. After that, however, it was all downhill. Jefferson shut him out, and four years later sought to replace him. Burr thought he would run an independent campaign and poach votes from both parties, but during the course of that bitter presidential election, his old nemesis, Alexander Hamilton, worked industriously to ruin him politically. Eventually, vague rumors of Hamilton disparaging him to a group of Federalists over dinner, with hints of “despicable” accusations being made, led Burr to challenge Hamilton to their famous and fateful duel. And the calculated letter Hamilton left behind indicating his intention to purposely fire into the trees because of his disapproval of dueling proved to be the mortal wound from which Burr would never recover. His chances in the election were ruined, and the authorities were actually considering murder charges, so Burr, though still the Vice President, fled New York like a common criminal.

Duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, via Wikimedia Commons.

Duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, via Wikimedia Commons.

He fled to South Carolina, where the apple of his eye, his daughter Theodosia, waited to take him in. Theirs had always been an exceedingly close relationship. Burr found his girl to be as intelligent and discerning as any man, and in a departure from common attitudes of the time toward women, he supported her in her education and all her intellectual pursuits, encouraging her to read the writings of early feminists such as Mary Wollstonecraft. Indeed, their relationship was so close that some believe3d it unseemly, and it has been suggested that the “despicable opinions” expressed by Hamilton may have been imputations that Burr’s relationship with his daughter was incestuous. Theodosia lived with her husband, Joseph Alston, a South Carolina state congressman, and when Aaron Burr fled New York to stay with them, her son, named for his grandfather, was a precocious two-year-old who brought great joy to the beleaguered Vice President.

When the charges against him had been dropped and his term of office ended, Burr went westward. Within a couple years, his Democratic Republican ticket mate, President Jefferson, brought him up on charges of treason, as it was alleged that Burr had planned to build an army and seize land in the Southwest and Mexico, forming his own country. The truth of these charges, however, is debatable, and the whole affair would perhaps require its own episode to do it justice. Suffice it to say that while Burr beat the charges, with Theodosia at his side supporting him through the entire affair, his reputation would never recover, and thereafter he chose to live in exile and poverty in Paris. While abroad, he had Theodosia act on his behalf in all matters, and Aaron Burr would not return until 1812, when he finally came back to New York to resume his practice of the law.

But Fortune was not through with Burr. That year, while his son-in-law was running for governor of South Carolina, his grandson died of a malarial fever. In great despair, with her health suffering from the grief and stress, Theodosia boarded a pilot-boat–built schooner called the Patriot, a former privateer that had stowed its guns below decks for this journey, making herself vulnerable to attack. On this vessel, Theodosia set sail for New York to seek the comfort of her father. Burr came to the waterfront to meet her upon her arrival, but her ship did not appear at the expected time. Day after day, he paced the docks, and night after night, he wrote increasingly desperate letters, corresponding with the equally distraught Joseph Alston. Eventually, Alston, who won the governorship, had to accept that his wife had been lost at sea, and in his grief, he grew ill and died himself. Aaron Burr would live almost another quarter of a century after Theodosia’s disappearance, and if one believed that a curse really had been placed on him after the Weeks Trial, one cannot really imagine it heaping more calamity and heartbreak on him than this. For the remainder of his life, he was forced to hear and contemplate many theories as to what befell his poor, grieving daughter. 

Reproduction of original John Vanderlyn portrait of Theodosia, via  Wikimedia Commons .

Reproduction of original John Vanderlyn portrait of Theodosia, via Wikimedia Commons.

The thought of his daughter drowning when her ship was caught in rough weather or struck broadside by a wave was surely bad enough. Worse were the whisperings that the Patriot had been taken by pirates, as how, then, might his beloved Theo have spent her final moments? What certainly made the thought more unsettling was its plausibility. Burr had been told that along the coast of North Carolina there lurked bands of scavengers called Wreckers or Bankers because they preyed upon the wrecks of ships that foundered on the sandbanks, especially near Nag’s Head and Kitty Hawk. When no ships obliged them by running aground, they lured them to their doom by tying a lantern around the neck of an old nag, which bobbing light resembled the light of an anchored ship and fooled passing vessels into thinking it a safe anchorage. When they wrecked upon the bank, these wreckers salvaged what they could and murdered the passengers.

This must have been a private horror that Aaron Burr lived with every day for the rest of his time on earth, the thought of his daughter being dragged from the hulk of the wrecked Patriot and murdered, if she were lucky before she could be defiled. And these nightmares were surely only cemented when the confessions began. In 1820, a newspaper article claimed that two pirates who had recently been hanged for their crimes admitted to having been crewmen on the Patriot, led a mutiny and killed everyone aboard. And in 1833, just a few years before Burr finally succumbed to death, another newspaper reported that a man in Mobile, AL, made a deathbed confession to his physician that he had been among the pirates who had destroyed the Patriot. According to this report, when all the men aboard had been dealt with, only Theodosia remained, proud and brave in facing her doom. As she had not resisted them, the pirates did not wish to harm her, but as it had to be done, they drew lots, and this dying pirate in Mobile had been the one chosen to take her life. Thinking it a mercy, he set a loose plank half over the edge of the vessel, and Theodosia, refusing a blindfold, walked courageously into the sea

After Aaron Burr died, the legend continued to grow. In the last decades of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, other pirate confessions appeared. In 1874, a Texas paper published a letter by someone claiming to have been a pirate aboard the brig that took the Patriot. In his story, Theodosia attacked the captain with a bottle and was subdued. After dying during the ship’s subsequent voyage to Galveston Bay, she was buried on Galveston Island. Thereafter, yet another deathbed admission, this time by one Benjamin F. Burdick in a poorhouse in Michigan, became a prominent element of the legend. His story followed the Mobile confession closely, but this time we get a lot more dramatic details. The pirate captain wants to keep her as a concubine, but she says she would prefer to die. Giving her some time to think about her decision, she retires to her cabin and reemerges dressed in white, clutching a bible to her chest. She kneels, prays, and walks the plank, but before plunging into the icy waters, she turns, lifts the scriptures and cries out: “Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord! I will repay!” Burdick’s details supposedly match the truth well enough to credit the tale, except that he got her name wrong, calling her Odessa Burr Alston, a discrepancy that some say makes his story rather more credible. However, the bigger issue with this late addition to the legend is that it appears to confirm a version of the story told in an 1872 novel by Charles Gayarré as Burdick claimed his pirate captain was none other Dominique Youx, the pirate that took the Patriot in Gayarré’s fictional account.

Dominique Youx, pictured with the Lafittes, via  Historical New Orleans .

Dominique Youx, pictured with the Lafittes, via Historical New Orleans.

And this version of the tale does not alone strain credulity, for others have cropped up that are equally hard to credit. One asserts that it is she who lies interred in Alexandria, VA, in a grave marked for a “female stranger” who died there in 1816 of some illness while under the watchful eye of an Englishman posing as her husband.  Another claims that the pirate Dominique Youx spared her, and she was thereafter taken captive by Jean Claude Lafitte and proved instrumental in convincing the pirate to help American forces win the Battle of New Orleans. And yet another suggested she had survived the passage to Galveston Bay, kept as a sex slave by her captors but was abandoned when the pirate ship was scuttled during a hurricane. There a Karankawan Indian found her, naked and chained to the deck. He took her to wife, but she soon passed away, leaving him with a locket engraved with her name, a piece of evidence that has, of course, not been preserved for the historical record.

One piece of possible evidence that we do have is the so-called Nag’s Head portrait. In 1869, one Dr. Pool happened to notice a remarkable portrait in the home of a resident of Nag’s Head, NC. When he inquired about it, she explained that, many years earlier, her first husband, had been among the notorious wreckers of that coastal area and happened upon a scuttled pilot boat. Like a ghost ship, there was no one aboard, though a table was set for a meal. Believing the ship had been taken by pirates and everyone aboard forced to walk the plank, they began their salvage, and imagine their surprise when they discovered a cabin full of fine silken women’s clothing and a grand portrait. Dr. Pool, believing the portrait to be of Theodosia, began corresponding with various scions of the Burr family, and eventually, a distant cousin of Theodosia’s was interested enough to make the trip. Upon seeing the portrait, she was certain it was Theodosia because of a striking resemblance to her own sister.

The Nag's Head Portrait, via  Wikimedia Commons . Compare with previous portrait. 

The Nag's Head Portrait, via Wikimedia Commons. Compare with previous portrait. 

For Aaron Burr’s part, he claimed that he never believed any of the pirate stories. “…my daughter is dead,” he insisted. “No prison on earth could keep Theodosia from me if she were alive.” But can the rest of us make claims to such certainty in this case? What do we really know beyond the fact that she was lost, plucked out of the pageant of history and hidden from the sight of the world, her fate a blind spot in the past.

The Trial of Levi Weeks for the Murder of Elma Sands


On New Year’s Eve, 1799, the reports of rifles were heard across Manhattan Island every half hour, from dawn to sunset, but this was not a celebratory discharge of arms. Rather, it was a dirge, a military salute to the late revolutionary hero, George Washington, who had passed away two weeks earlier and whose funerary march filled the snowy streets with mourners that day, with dragoons at the forefront hauling captured British artillery, followed by cavalry, militia and veterans of the revolution. Thereafter came the fraternal orders of the city, like the Freemasons in their odd regalia, and the city’s major financial players, members of the boards of its influential companies, followed by city councilmen and the denizens of Columbia University before the rank and file of its general professionals in the medical and legal fields. 

This spectacle was a fitting end to the year for Manhattan, for the city had been plagued by death that year. Before Washington’s death cast a final pall over the city, it had suffered many losses among its own populace from Yellow Fever, such that before the season had ended and the epidemic subsided, the island had become something of a ghost town, with many fleeing the city, and leaving its streets as dead as the fever’s victims. It was generally agreed that the source of the city’s troubles with the fever was its potable water supply, entirely provided by one pump, the Tea-Water Pump, a supply that many believed had been contaminated by the tainted waters of the nearby pond known as the Collect, which had become brackish from furnace and tannery waste as well as from dead animals and the personal effluvium of chamber pots. This was no new problem, and by the end of the century, it looked like a resolution had finally been reached, as a recently formed concern called the Manhattan Company, members of whose board marched in Washington’s memorial parade on New Year’s Eve, had developed a solution: wooden pipes had been laid to carry fresh water from Lispenard’s Meadow outside of town right to the citizens. And so life and populace had been returning to Manhattan at the close of the year when news of Washington’s passing reached them.

The Manhattan Company laying wooden pipes to bring fresh water to the city, via 6sqft

The Manhattan Company laying wooden pipes to bring fresh water to the city, via 6sqft

Lest it be thought that the people of Manhattan were united in their gladness at having survived the fever and their sorrow over the late General Washington’s passing, though, it should be established how very divided the city was. American politics had settled quickly and firmly into a two-party system, with the Federalists, who sought firmer central control through constitutional prerogative and a newly established national bank and federal mint, and the Democratic-Republicans, who opposed such centralization and were often characterized as radicals like unto revolutionary French Jacobins. And the poster boys of these two great factions could both be found among marchers in that sad New Year’s Eve procession: Alexander Hamilton, dyed in wool Federalist and founder of the Bank of the United States, marching among the veterans of the revolution, and his former brother-in-arms and erstwhile nemesis Aaron Burr, Democratic-Republican and former Attorney General and Senator of New York, marching with the board of the Manhattan Company, the water-bringing savior of the city that Burr had founded. These two parties, and these two men, found themselves locked in a struggle for the control of not only New York politics, but also the control of national politics. The upcoming election of the presidency, after all, would be determined there in New York, as local elections in this most populous city of the nation would stack the state legislature, which itself appointed electors and thereby controlled the outcome of presidential elections. Previously, Hamilton and the Federalists held sway, wielding power over city merchants with their national bank, but Burr had recently managed something of a coup. Taking advantage of a loophole in the charter for the Manhattan Company that Hamilton himself had signed, a vague clause that allowed the company to make use of surplus funds however it saw fit, Burr had managed to create a bank under the guise of a water company and thereby loosen the Federalist stranglehold on the electorate. In fact, Burr’s use of cheap materials, choosing wooden pipes to bring water from Lispenard’s Meadow to the city, seems to indicate that the water project was only a means to an end. Although he did bring fresh water to the people of Manhattan, he appears to have been more focused on bringing political capital to his party and himself.

This was the context in which that funereal parade took place, two titans of American society among its marchers. And any who know their fair share of history are well aware that the fate of these two men was to be closely intertwined, but the day of their fateful duel was still far in their future, and long before that, these two men, lawyers both, would find themselves sitting at the same table, united in the purpose of defending a man, the question of whose guilt would see the city further divided.

A depiction of another funeral parade for Washington, in Philadelphia, via  Wikimedia Commons

A depiction of another funeral parade for Washington, in Philadelphia, via Wikimedia Commons


Two days after the memorial parade, the new century having begun with a sharp cold snap, a rotund man in the baggy clothes and floppy hat of a Quaker, strode resolutely out to a house on the edge of Lispenard’s Meadow, a foggy tendril of breath streaming from his mouth before dissipating as if never there.  His name was Elias Ring, keeper of a boardinghouse in Manhattan, and the specter of death had continued to haunt him and his wife and everyone in his establishment even after the dawn of the hopeful new year, for one of his lodgers, who happened to be his wife’s cousin, a youthful beauty by the name of Gulielma Sands—Elma for short—had been missing since before Christmas, having gone out one snowy evening carrying a muff she had borrowed from another lodger and never returned. They had searched everywhere, and everyone feared the worst. Ring had even gone so far as to hire a man to drag the Hudson for her corpse. Now with the New Year had come a troubling clue: a boy had found the borrowed muff in Lispenard’s Meadow and it had been given away as a gift to someone who later happened to hear of Elma’s disappearance, and more specifically of the article she was said to be carrying.

Word having reached Elias, he marched out to the meadow and to the home of the boy who had found the muff. Within a short time, Elias, together with the boy’s father and several others, set out across the meadow to the place where the boy had discovered the muff, a disused and boarded up well. Called the Manhattan Well, it had been considered by Burr’s Manhattan Company as the source for the new water project but had been rejected in favor of a freshly dug well elsewhere. There it stood, a lonely, breathing hole in the earth, and one of the boards closing up its maw had been pried off. The deputation of searchers probed the well with poles, and making the grim discovery that there was indeed some heavy, sodden mass in the water below, they went about hooking it and hauling it up. Upon the task’s completion, what was struck by the daylight in turn struck the men with horror and repulsion: a sopping sheet of dark hair, the waterlogged material of a filthy dress, and in between, glimpses pallid, slick and stiff flesh.

Lispenard's Meadow, via  The Lineup

Lispenard's Meadow, via The Lineup

It was Elma, Elias confirmed, and someone fetched a constable. The constable arrived to find a muttering crowd gathered round the body, and by their demands he felt compelled to act immediately, for it seemed that rumors had for some time already held a certain man in suspicion, and the discovery of Elma’s body meant, surely, that Levi Weeks, another lodger of Elias Ring’s and erstwhile companion of the deceased young lady, was guilty of her murder and must hang. The constable set out, the beginnings of a mob at his back, and found Weeks at the workshop where he plied his trade, performing carpentry for his brother Ezra Weeks, a prominent house-builder who had also helped to construct the new waterworks stretching from Lispenard’s Meadow into the city. The constable found Levi Weeks, a handsome and strong young man, rather less than surprised. He did not even need to be told what was happening but rather discerned it from the faces of those who came to him. And then, seemingly unprompted, he said something that would be held as the strongest piece of evidence against him: “Is it the Manhattan Well she was found in?”


Levi Weeks had both an alibi and a benefactor in his wealthy and influential brother, Ezra, for he had been at his brother’s house for dinner on the evening of Elma’s disappearance, and in order to help prove this, Ezra hired a team of the best attorneys in the city, one Brockholst Livingston and the powerhouse duo of Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, who agreed to put aside their personal and political enmities for the purposes of seeing justice done in this sensational case—as well as for the payday it promised. ­­And it was indeed a question of whether justice would be done, for it appeared young Weeks was in danger of being railroaded.

Burr and Hamilton, via

Burr and Hamilton, via

Rumors had begun to circulate well before the discovery of Elma’s corpse because Levi was known to be close with Elma, going out on the town with her occasionally and often speaking privately with her in her room. Indeed, many in the household anticipated an imminent wedding proposal, and although the two of them left the boardinghouse separately on the evening of Elma’s disappearance, ostensibly with different plans, Elias’s wife believed that she heard them whispering to each other on the stairs before leaving, likely making clandestine plans that would conclude with Elma’s bloody murder. And such talk was not only exchanged among those who knew Levi and Elma, but rather, the rumormongering had run amok through the city, with gossipers, or perhaps just one, spreading the tale that Levi’s guilt was a known fact, his hanging a foregone conclusion. Handbills had even been printed and circulated that talked of Elma’s ghost seeking retribution against her lover, and demons dancing about the lip of the well to celebrate the Devil’s victory in persuading Levi Weeks to commit his terrible act. 

One newspaper piece, at least—this one likely penned by Aaron Burr himself—made the suggestion that Levi Weeks may be innocent of the crime and urged the public to suspend their judgment. This piece even went so far as to point out that Elma Sands may not have even been murdered, noting that she was prone to melancholy and idle threats of self-harm. This the Ring family disputed spiritedly in a statement of their own, though of course it must have occurred as a possibility to Elias Ring as he had paid to have the Hudson dragged in fear she’d drowned herself. Nevertheless, the Rings’ version of events was now a full-blown narrative, having been embellished through retelling to the point that Elma was now Levi’s fiancée, due to marry him the next day and likely already with child, and she had been murdered in her very bridal gown…quite a harrowing tale, though none of it be true.

The story did its job of whipping up the public fury, though, and while Levi Weeks languished in a jail cell, the Rings displayed Elma’s pale and ghostly corpse in their boardinghouse, opening their doors to any and all who wished to view this poor victim of brutality. And in an even more ghastly display, when it came time to carry her out of the house and bury her, they threw open her coffin and propped her up in the streets as an awful spectacle for the gathering crowds to see, making it clear all the while who they believed had taken her life. Such a deathly scene had not been observed in Manhattan since Washington’s funeral parade; this time, however, it excited feelings of outrage and vengeance rather than sorrow. And the very same crowds that thronged the street to see Elma’s body showed up at the courthouse on the first day of the trial of Levi Weeks, making a circus of what should have been a solemn and rational affair. 

As the trial commenced, the prosecutor, Cadwallader Colden, took the floor to establish a motive for the alleged crime, calling on witness after witness to testify that Levi and Elma were not only courting but, as was generally believed, headed toward marriage. These witnesses, including Mrs. Ring with her claim to have heard the two conferring secretly upon the stair, were met with the form cross-examination of Alexander Hamilton, who frequently objected to their reliance on hearsay and challenged every bit of conjecture as immaterial and unreliable. Some witnesses, including Elias Ring and another lodger of his, even testified that some untoward intimacy may have developed between the two. Ring claimed that he heard some suggestive sounds from an empty room and the next morning found the bedclothes disturbed, and the lodger, a salesman named Richard Croucher who had a devilish aspect to his countenance, impugned Levi’s character in no uncertain terms, insinuating that he had even happened upon them in flagrante delicto.

Prosecutor Colden followed this testimony with that of witnesses who claimed to have seen Ezra Weeks’s sleigh on the night of Elma’s disappearance, flying through the streets on some secret errand, its bells removed to silence its passage. Juxtaposing this testimony with that of other witnesses who had seen a sleigh with a woman and one or two men in it, and others still who claimed to have seen a sleigh on its way out to Lispenard’s Meadow and to have witnessed footprints and sleigh tracks in the snow near Manhattan Well, Colden created a fabric of evidence meant to be taken together to indicate that Levi Weeks, and perhaps Ezra Weeks as well, took Elma on a silent sleigh ride to her deep and watery doom. Of course, Hamilton did not let this pass unchallenged and indeed was able to shred much of the testimony, forcing witnesses to admit they couldn’t actually discern the color of the sleigh’s horse in the darkness, or that they didn’t actually know what Ezra Weeks’s sleigh looked like in order to recognize it, or that they weren’t even certain when they saw what they saw.

Detail of 19th century painting depicting a horse-drawn sleigh in the countryside, via  Wikimedia Commons

Detail of 19th century painting depicting a horse-drawn sleigh in the countryside, via Wikimedia Commons

Finally, as a decisive thrust, Colden called multiple medical experts who gave the opinion that there were signs on the corpse that indicated she had been murdered. One doctor noted bruising on the neck and bosom and a telltale clicking when he pressed on the clavicle that indicated she had been strangled with such violence that her collarbone had snapped. This, of course, provided no direct connection to Levi Weeks whatsoever, but speculation that this indicated a crime of passion certainly made the assertion that the prosecutor wanted to make. And the speculative and circumstantial nature of the evidence isn’t even what the defense seized on in cross-examination, for there was something even more dubious about these experts. One wasn’t even a surgeon as he presented himself but was actually a mere dentist, and none of them had been among the doctors who performed Elma’s autopsy nor had even been present at the inquest. They had only had opportunity to examine the corpse while it was on display at the Ring Boardinghouse and in the streets of Manhattan, long after its removal from the well and after it had been handled by innumerable people.

In the prosecution’s closing arguments, Cadwallader Colden held forth on a certain legal text that insisted on the importance, nay, the indispensability, of circumstantial evidence in a murder trial, when the only people who knew with certainty what happened were either dead or guilty and thus not likely disposed to offer truthful testimony. An interesting philosophy, certainly, and Aaron Burr, rising to offer the defense’s opening arguments, promptly offered a sound rebuttal, pointing out that Colden had taken his quoted passage out of context, and that the legal text used by the prosecution actually argued against his point. Indeed, circumstantial evidence should not be relied upon exclusively when other evidence is lacking, as it might lead to innocent men being convicted on no more proof than coincidence and supposition.

The defense went on to call numerous witnesses able to confirm Levi’s alibi. He had come to his brother’s house for dinner, neither had taken the sleigh out for a late night ride in huggermugger, and Levi had left at so late an hour that, despite Cadwallader Colden’s claims to the contrary, he simply wouldn’t have had time to commit the crime before he was known to have returned to the Ring boardinghouse and retired for the night. It simply couldn’t have been done. And not only did Levi’s brother testify to the same, but he also gave a compelling reason why Levi might have asked whether Elma had been found in a certain well—it was the simple and obvious reason that word had already spread of the search for Elma taking place out on Lispenard’s Meadow, and Ezra himself, having some knowledge of the meadow in his capacity as the builder of the waterworks there, had mentioned to Levi that they were searching in the vicinity of the Manhattan Well.

Like the prosecution, the defense also called medical experts, only theirs were the actual doctors who had examined the corpse at the time of its discovery, at the coroner’s inquest. They disputed the conclusions of the prosecution’s experts, stating that no such indications of violence had been present at the autopsy, and furthermore, in contradiction of the fervent assertions of Levi Weeks’s accusers, they had found that Elma Sands had not been pregnant at the time of her death. Indeed, beyond some scratches on the hands, which may have been occasioned during her fall down the well whether she was dead or alive upon entering, there were no indications that she had been murdered, and there was enough water in her lungs to indicate she had died by drowning. It seemed the finding of the coroner that she had been murdered was more a result of social pressure than of any scientific deduction, and the presiding physicians were rather more of the opinion that she had killed herself by leaping into the well. Thus the defense was justified in following other avenues of inquiry not supportive of homicide, raising such evidence as Elma’s melancholy, her habitual use of laudanum and offhand threats of suicide.

But they had already suggested these notions to the jury in cross-examination, and since many jurors likely still believed she had been murdered, it seemed more important instead to cast a shadow of doubt on the prosecutor’s narrative of Levi’s guilt. And this they did by raising other suspects for the court to consider, the first being none other than the Quaker keeper of the boardinghouse himself, Elias Ring. This they accomplished by turning against him his own story of secret rendezvous scandalously overheard, for it turned out that the neighboring building, a blacksmithery, shared a wall with the boardinghouse, and the blacksmith had actually heard carnal encounters taking place in Elma’s room. This neighbor swore that he had heard the voice of Elias Ring himself having trysts with Elma Sand while his wife was away during the height of the Yellow Fever, and even remembered remarking upon it to his wife, to the effect that he feared Ring had ruined the poor girl. Therefore, it appeared that Ring was the cad misusing the girl, not Levi.

A drawing sometimes used as a depiction of the Ring Boardinghouse, via  Murder by Gaslight

A drawing sometimes used as a depiction of the Ring Boardinghouse, via Murder by Gaslight

Then there was the other tenant of the boardinghouse, Richard Croucher, who had been only too happy to testify that he had seen Levi and Elma in a compromising position, he whose diabolical features already made the jury and the crowd disposed to distrust him. Croucher admitted that he had somehow offended Elma in passing her through a hallway, perhaps by brushing against her or by some more impertinent act, and that he had almost come to blows with Levi, who had defended her honor in the matter. So it seemed Croucher had some basis for resenting the both of them, and as it turned out, over the course of various witness testimonies, it had been Croucher who had so industriously spread the rumor that Levi was guilty of murdering Elma. Throughout the time that Elma’s corpse stood on display in the boardinghouse, he was seen haunting the room, telling anyone who might listen that she had been done in by her lover, Levi Weeks. And witness after witness confirmed that Croucher had gone about bursting into stores and taverns, shouting the news of Levi’s guilt. Once, when a grocer gave similar testimony about a stranger coming into his establishment not to purchase anything but rather only to spread his poison against Weeks, Alexander Hamilton lifted a candle to better illuminate Richard Croucher’s face in the dark courtroom so that the grocer could identify him. Moreover, it was revealed that the blacksmith neighbor had actually confided his secret about Elias Ring’s infidelity with Elma Sands to Richard Croucher. The fact that Croucher would spread rumors and swear evidence against Levi Weeks yet omit this important fact absolutely compromised his credibility, and the notion that he might have actually used this knowledge to blackmail Elias Ring into helping him pin the crime on poor Levi Weeks tended also to cast suspicion on him as being the actual killer.

By this time, the trial had stretched on for days, such that the judge had been forced to sequester the jury by having them sleep on the floor in the courthouse on the first night, and late on the second day, everyone was exhausted. Hamilton and Burr had weakened the prosecution’s case and made a strong defense, and so, confident in their work, they closed their case without any closing argument. The jury retired… and returned very shortly, after almost no deliberation, with a verdict of not guilty, which was met by the resounding cheers of a crowd that two days before would have lynched Levi Weeks in the streets if they’d had their way.

Today, the murder of Elma Sands remains unsolved. Did she kill herself? Did Levi kill her? Or was there a murderer on the loose? The people of New York, at least, were satisfied some months later that the perpetrator was identified when Richard Croucher, the nefarious looking fellow lodger who had so besmirched Levi Weeks’s name, was arrested and tried for rape. According to the details that emerged in his subsequent trial, after his recent marriage, he took his young stepdaughter to the Ring boardinghouse to help him pack his things, and it was there that he forced himself upon her most brutally. In doing so, he even raised the topic of Elma Sands, threatening that he would kill this girl the same way Elma had been killed if she told anyone of what he’d done to her. It was not exactly an admission of guilt in Elma’s murder, but for many, it was close enough. And in Paul Collins’s fantastic book Duel with the Devil, which I have relied on as my principal source for this episode, Collins relates some unsettling details about his history that further depict him as a man capable of murder. In England, he seems to have had a psychotic break and attempted to slay someone, an act that earned him the nickname Mad Croucher. And after his release from prison in New York, having served his time for the rape and been pardoned on the understanding that would leave the country, he instead went to Virginia, where he was eventually arrested for theft. Finally forced to return to his native London, we have a final report, recorded by a son of Alexander Hamilton, that he was ultimately put to death for some “heinous crime.”

Yet in popular imagination, many overlook this likely suspect and instead have suggested that Burr and Hamilton helped exonerate a guilty man. This can be largely attributed to the myths and folklore that have arisen around the case. First, ghosts have ever surrounded the affair. After the handbills about goblins and spirits in Lispenard’s Meadow, there arose a variety of stories about the Manhattan Well being haunted by the restless spirit of Elma Sands, such that one can imagine her crawling out of its depths, wet and pale, like a scene straight out of The Ring.

Indeed, these ghost stories persist even today and seem to imply that justice was not done 217 years ago, even though nearly everyone at the time seems to have been satisfied with the verdict. The trial has been compared to the OJ trial because of its sensational aspects and the “dream team” assembled in Weeks’s defense, but in this regard it was different. Unlike the OJ case, the public was relieved that they hadn’t convicted what appeared to be an innocent man.

Even those who weren’t at the trial soon learned all about it from some popular narrative accounts of the proceedings that were widely read, as this was the first well documented court case in our history, and with popular versions of the events written by a variety of spectators as well as the court reporter, it might be considered one of the first popular publications in the modern True Crime genre. It was because of this popularity that it soon became exaggerated in memory and mythologized. One example of this corruption of the record is the moment when Hamilton held up a candle to identify Croucher; this has become a cinematic scene in the popular imagination, and has even been illustrated as such, in which Hamilton (or Burr, depending on the account) lifted two entire candelabras and dramatically thrust them forth in a pivotal courtroom moment, to identify the true murderer.

Depiction of exaggerated events at the Weeks Trial, via the  Library of Congress

Depiction of exaggerated events at the Weeks Trial, via the Library of Congress

Another example derives from a novel about the trial written anonymously some 70 years after the affair by a granddaughter of the Rings. This book concocted a scene in which Mrs. Ring waited outside the courtroom to curse Burr and Hamilton for using their wiles to free her cousin’s murderer, a myth that has proven very popular in the telling of this tale, supported as it is by the unhappy fates of some involved in the trial, such as the judge, John Lansing, who some years later disappeared never to be seen again. And of course, the most commonly raised proof of the existence of Mrs. Ring’s curse, the ensuing woes of the two most prominent historical figures in the narrative, starting with their fateful duel and, at least for Burr, continuing on to further hardships and miseries, some of which I’ll be discussing in the upcoming Blind Spot. For now it is enough to remark upon the historical blindness that occurs when mysteries such as these go unsolved and when facts and truth become cluttered with embellishments and folklore.


Thanks for listening to Historical Blindness, the Odd Past Podcast. Aside from the few sources to which I’ve linked in the body of the blog post, I relied almost entirely on Paul Collins’s amazingly well-researched book, Duel with the Devil: The True Story of How Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr Teamed up to Take on America’s First Sensational Murder Mystery. If you’d like to read this book and support the podcast at the same time, please visit, where I’ve set up a reading list with great books for further reading on the topics of every episode I’ve ever done!

Blind Spot: Swift's Lost Silver Mine and Dorr's River of Gold


In our last installment, Joseph Mulhatton: Liar Laureate of the World, I took listeners deep into the history of fake news by exploring the life and work of the most prolific newspaper hoaxer who ever lived. The subject of that episode was first introduced to me while listening to the hugely entertaining and informative podcast Astonishing Legends, as hosts Forrest Burgess and Scott Philbrook brought up Mulhatton as a possible explanation for the newspaper article that sparked the legend of Kinkaid’s Cave in the Grand Canyon. This story in the Arizona Gazette in 1909 indicated that a massive cavern had been found in the Grand Canyon that contained not only treasures but also relics and mummified remains that indicated it had once been the home of an Egyptian civilization, thus providing evidence of pre-Columbian trans-oceanic contact. The guys at Astonishing Legends rightly pointed to a quite convincing theory by Don Lago, published by the Grand Canyon Historical Society, that this was a Mulhatton hoax. And indeed, listeners should find many aspects of the Kinkaid’s Cave tale familiar, as Mulhatton several times published hoaxes about caverns with underground rivers and great riches, including proof of pre-Columbian, specifically Egyptian, contact. Philbrook and Burgess of Astonishing Legends also cautioned, however, that there is no proof of Mulhatton having perpetrated this story as a hoax, and it should be kept in mind that there is a long history, both before and after Mulhatton’s time, of stories about caves containing riches untold, legends that spread far and wide and persist even today, despite the fact that they may be nothing more than fables and tall tales. One only has to look at two such American legends to see this folkloric tradition: Swift’s Lost Silver Mine and Dorr’s River of Gold. 


The first of these tales finds us back in Mulhattan’s stomping grounds, Kentucky, but in the late 18th century. A pioneer by the name of Dooley Townsend is out one day setting traps by the Red River when a band of lost and starving men come upon him, desperate for sustenance and direction. Townsend helps them, but one man among them, an old blind man, is far too gone and dies with Townsend at his bedside, bequeathing to the Good Samaritan his only possession of value, a journal. And the story this journal tells will establish a legend that will drive many to adventure and ruin.

Swift bequeathing his journal, via

Swift bequeathing his journal, via

According to the journal, the old man was one John Swift, formerly a seagoing man and ship captain who may have commanded any sort of vessel, from merchantman to pirate ship, as far as the record tells. Having retired from that life to become a merchant in North Carolina and Virginia, he happened to take under his wing a young man named Munday who had lived most of his life among Native American tribes. Out of gratitude, Munday promised to lead Swift to a secret cave in Kentucky where native peoples were known to mine silver. So off they went, in the early 1760s, to find the mine, forging through the untamed wilderness that was Kentucky long before Daniel Boone was ever reported to have done so and never encountering a single Native American, as it appears, at least according to some historians, that no tribes then lived in the region, instead using the land only to hunt and meet in open warfare.

Eventually, Munday found the old mine, which was essentially a cave in the face of a cliff, and Swift’s journal gave very precise descriptions of landmarks leading to the mine, ostensibly as a record so that Swift could find it again. He found the mine plentiful indeed, reporting that he easily found ore and was even able to smelt it in a nearby stone furnace. Therefore, he and Munday returned to the mine several times throughout the 1760s, until once they stayed too long, despite Munday’s warnings, and were beset by Native American warriors, barely escaping with their lives. After that close call, they did not return for several years, and when they did, they came prepared to haul back as much silver as possible. On their way back, each member of their party rode his horse with a large, heavy sack of silver, such that the horses could not carry any more weight, but a snake bit Munday’s horse, killing it. When Munday suggested that others go on foot as well so that he could place his sack on a horse and not have to leave it behind, an argument ensued. During the quarrel, Munday threatened to betray the group to area natives, and Swift murdered him

Swift and Munday searching for the mine, via

Swift and Munday searching for the mine, via

Some versions of his story have Swift going back to England after this, where he was imprisoned on some crime. Others have him returning to North Carolina, where his spending of silver coins he had minted himself got him tried for counterfeiting, charges that were supposedly dismissed when the coins were found to be pure silver. Regardless of where he was in the interim, one detail is agreed upon; not suddenly but inexorably, Swift went blind, and thereafter, all of his future expeditions relied on his recollections, comparing his descriptions to the observations of his travelling companions. Thus his last expedition, when Townsend discovered him lost in the wilderness and starving. After Dooley Townsend received the journal, it was thereafter lost, perhaps taken from his belongings upon his death by an unscrupulous lawyer. Word of its existence first appears in the historical record in 1788, and ever since, it has become a mythical artifact, its narrative and maps passing from treasure hunter to treasure hunter, and somewhere along the way becoming duplicated and bastardized by forgers and compilers claiming to reproduce it from memory, such that there appear to have been multiple competing versions in circulation, all claiming authenticity even though some bear the clear marks of paraphrasing and even bald-faced quotation!

While some argue over the particulars of what has been recorded from these different documents, others dispute the entire story outright. Believers point to Kentucky place names and oral history as proof that Swift and his mine existed, while the more scholarly pore over old documents in search of his name and cite a 1788 treasury warrant by Kentucky historian and mapmaker John Filson as evidence for the story’s veracity, as the warrant identifies 1,000 acres that were supposed to contain Swift’s mine. For proof that Swift’s silver coins did and do exist, numismatists, or coin collectors, will point to the Sprinkle Dollar, a silver coin of unknown origin supposed to have turned up in circulation in 1830s West Virginia.  

A map supposedly based on details from Swift's journal, via  TreasureNet

A map supposedly based on details from Swift's journal, via TreasureNet

On the other hand, skeptics pick apart all documentary evidence by pointing out inconsistencies and look to geological evidence that Kentucky sandstone has never produced more than trace amounts of silver, and nothing like the great veins and nuggets reported in the Swift tales. Some say that Swift concocted the tale as a cover for counterfeiting activity and piracy, kind of like money laundering in that he had to offer some explanation for ill-gotten coinage, but other disbelievers take it further and allege that Swift himself never existed. One theory points to the many Masonic symbols in the surviving accounts of the Swift journal to suggest it was written as an allegory, symbolically representing Masonic ideas of the search for enlightenment and tying into tales of Solomon’s mines. These theories tend to point at none other than the historian John Filson, he who first put down a reference to the mine for history and posterity, as the perpetrator of this literary hoax

Whether the story of Swift’s Lost Silver Mine was a hoax or a literary concoction or a genuine lost treasure, it has certainly driven many a seeker of wealth and adventure to devote their lives and fortunes to searching for it. And even today, well into the 21st century, treasure hunters expend great effort and capital in searching for the lost mine.

Portrait of Earl Dorr, via  The Mojave Project

Portrait of Earl Dorr, via The Mojave Project

Such is also the case with another legend that sounds even more like a Mulhatton tall tale, featuring as it does a vast subterranean river, although this one appeared decades after the Liar Laureate’s alleged passing. In 1934, a prospector named Earl P. Dorr swore an affidavit regarding the discovery of a cavern and underground river beneath Kokoweef Mountain in the Joshua Tree region of the Mojave Desert. His story unfolded as follows: Three Native American brothers, the Peyserts, had been hired to work on his father’s ranch in the 1890s. During the first few years of the 20th century, the brothers went in search of the motherlode that tribal legend told was secreted beneath Kokoweef, and find it they did. After discovering the entrance to a vast cavern system and exploring its labrynthine passages, they came upon a chamber where an underground river lapped against virgin black sands sparkling with placer gold. The Peyserts took what they could, but before they left, the waters rose as in a sudden tidal influx and drowned one of them. Out of superstition, they never returned to the cavern that had claimed their brother’s life, but they did tell Earl Dorr of the cavern and the river of gold, and Dorr’s affidavit claimed he had gone on to find it, but after the cavern’s entrance was seen by two other prospectors, he blasted it to keep them from taking the gold for themselves, and after that he was unsuccessful at finding another entrance.

The Peyserts making their discovery, in The Desert Magazine, via  The Mojave Project

The Peyserts making their discovery, in The Desert Magazine, via The Mojave Project

Disbelievers in Dorr’s story call him a teller of tales, suggesting that he may have explored an actual, verified cave beneath Kokoweef, called Crystal Cavern, but that his tales of finding treasure there were fabrications. As proof they point to the fact that he actually swore out multiple affidavits, and that the details between them create discrepancies. Moreover, it appears that many particulars of his story, including the Native American brothers’ discovery of the cave, the description of the underground river and black sands laden with gold, and the tidal waters claiming one brother’s life, were likely plagiarized from a collection of mythical yarns about lost mines and buried treasure written by one John Mitchell and published a year before the swearing out of his affidavits under the title Lost Mines of the Great Southwest. Nevertheless, these revelations have not deterred believers, and the legend has persisted. In the early 90’s, the story of Earl Dorr’s River of Gold was even featured on the classic show Unsolved Mysteries. In the segment, which can be seen on Amazon Video on episode 4 of season 6, Robert Stack tells the story of one Wally Spencer, who claimed to have found Dorr’s river and believed the government was conspiring against him, bugging his house to find the river’s location and take the water rights for themselves. Even today there exists a mining operation at Kokoweef Mountain that has sworn to its shareholders for years that they were very near striking the mountain’s legendary mother lode.

Earl Dorr at his River of Gold, from The Desert Magazine, via  The Mojave Project

Earl Dorr at his River of Gold, from The Desert Magazine, via The Mojave Project

These stories of lost treasure made their way not only into history books in some cases, but perhaps more profoundly, they established themselves in popular belief and have obsessed treasure hunters and adventurers for decades and even centuries. When stories such as these, the veracity of which are vehemently debated, can become the sole focus and pursuit of people’s lives, then the relatively common and more often than not harmless condition of historical blindness becomes injurious and takes on a more fearsome aspect. Whether hoaxes like Mulhatton’s or earnest reports of riches real or imagined, these blind spots in history have lured many seekers to ruin.

Joseph Mulhatton: The Liar Laureate of the World

Since just before last year’s vitriolic presidential election, a new phrase has entered the American political lexicon. It has become a rhetorical strategy all its own, almost like a brand new logical fallacy in that it does not hold up as an argument under any kind of scrutiny. It is a complete rejection of a source implying it holds no truth or any worth, but this dismissal is not based on research, fact or logic but rather only on the basis that one dislikes what the source has to say and therefore contemptuously applies to it a nonsensical label meant to completely undermine its authority. This label? “Fake news.”

The idea of false or misleading information propagated through journalism is not new. Listeners of course may recall our episodes on the Reichstag Fire and the propaganda surrounding it, which made its way into history books for a long time. Indeed, even the phrase “fake news” isn’t new. A quick look at the Google Books Ngram Viewer shows that it had been used infrequently in the 19th century and then, during the 20th century with its rampant government sponsored, wartime propaganda campaigns, it can be seen to spike in contemporary literature. Of course, one can also see that the phrase’s prominence in social and political discourse today dwarfs its use in the past. And of course, there is a reason for this, an inciting incident, so to speak.

As the 2016 presidential campaigns heated up, sensational and outrageous news stories started to show up in social media feeds, spread by users themselves who found that these stories reinforced their suspicions about or prejudices against a candidate. The problem was that these supposed news stories were actually hoaxes perpetrated by degenerate trolls and opportunists seeking to garner advertising clicks through viral distribution of their fraudulent articles. After the election, the suggestion that these pervasive hoaxes may have helped to sway the electorate caused social media giant Facebook to take measures against this so-called “fake news,” thus bringing the term into common modern parlance and cementing its place in the zeitgeist. Then a funny thing happened. The new president of the United States, who had himself indulged in some of the conspiracy-mongering common of these hoaxes, began to misuse the term “fake news,” and its accepted meaning began to evolve. No longer did the term refer only to recognized hoaxes, false stories propagated anonymously and pretending to come from respectable news outlets by hiding behind slightly altered domain names. Now it was an epithet, a new political barb to sling at any legitimate news outlet that may be publishing unfavorable news or following an editorial direction that proves inconvenient for one’s agenda.

With the idea of fake news drifting so far from its intended definition, it becomes important to put things in perspective, and the examination of history is uniquely useful for doing just that. Therefore, let us go back to the 19th century and the beginning of fake news in the form of newspaper hoaxes in order to better understand what fake news really is. And in looking into this topic, there is no better figure to examine than Joseph Mulhatton*, the Liar Laureate of the World.

The history of newspaper hoaxes provides a nearly perfect analogy for the actual fake news of today. These false stories were often printed despite their dubious nature in order to increase newspaper sales, just like the fake news economy that culminated in 2016 was driven by revenue, although sometimes these hoaxes were mistakenly printed because they fooled editors or were purposely run as satire, making them comparable to articles in the Onion, which are sometimes misunderstood to be hoaxes rather than jokes. The big difference here is that these articles did not appear in publications devoted solely to satirical writing, nor in disreputable publications masquerading as real newspapers, but rather in otherwise trustworthy news outlets. New York’s The Sun, while more willing to print unsophisticated content as a penny paper, nevertheless prided itself on being politically independent and certainly wasn’t in the business of printing boldface lies until, two years after its 1833 launch, it became complicit in a hoax that claimed an astronomer had discovered life on the moon. Not only were various forms of animal life detailed, but a civilization of winged humanoids as well. There are a variety of reasons why the editor of The Sun may have perpetrated the ingenious and complicated hoax. Perhaps it was to increase circulation, which certainly seems to have been accomplished. Perhaps it was meant as a trap for the more respected papers, tempting them to reprint a falsehood that could thereafter be revealed to discredit them, although none took the bait. Or perhaps it was a satire all along, poking fun at the implausible ideas of certain fringe astronomers, but it had quickly gotten out of editorial control. Regardless, this affair certainly serves as the first major example of a newspaper hoax, and it may have exerted some influence on the subject of our story in the form of inspiration.

A French print by the Thierry bothers showing the appearance of the landscape and inhabitants of the Moon, via  The Houston Chronicle

A French print by the Thierry bothers showing the appearance of the landscape and inhabitants of the Moon, via The Houston Chronicle

And inspiration for newspaper hoaxes was by no means wanting. In 1844, with his wife ill and creditors hounding his trail, Edgar Allan Poe came to the offices of The Sun in New York with a fanciful story in hand, perhaps encouraged by their embroilment in the Moon Hoax not a decade earlier, and sure enough, the newspaper published his story. Thus the Great Balloon Hoax was born, detailing the astounding transatlantic journey of ballooner Monck Mason in just 75 hours. And during the life of our central character, young Joseph Mulhatton, who was born sometime in the late 1840s or early 1850s, another famous newspaper hoax appeared that may have encouraged him in his lies. In 1874 the New-York Herald, which ironically had been the staunchest and most vocal critic of The Sun regarding the Moon Hoax, printed a story about animals escaping the Central Park Zoo and running amok throughout the city. The article caused a general panic among readers, and despite the fact that at the end of the story it admitted to being a fabrication, the Herald was roundly denounced for its deception of the public. 

At this juncture let us focus on the subject of this study, who by the time of the Central Park Zoo Escape Hoax was already well on the path to establishing himself as an accomplished hoaxer. Even in his youth, the impulse to spin tales appears to have been strong in him. Depending on one’s opinion of religion, one may speculate that his tendency to spread false narratives was either developed out of rebellion against his father or was a predisposition inherited from him, for his father was a Presbyterian minister. Regardless, before he had even reached his majority, he had a major hoax under his belt, for it seems he spread the rumor of a series of stagecoach robberies outside of Pittsburgh, where he was attending high school at the time. The newspaper journalists of the area became convinced that an outlaw gang was at work, and in order to scoop an exclusive, they took to riding in buckboard wagons all around the area, hoping to be held up themselves. Eventually, after hours and hours of uneventful wandering, they concluded that the story had been a prank.

Out of high school, Mulhatton went to work for a Pittsburgh hardware company and began to travel as their salesman, or drummer. His travels took him far and wide, and before long he had taken up with a Louisville, Kentucky, hardware company as their drummer, which sent him even farther abroad, to the American South and the Southwest. He was quite successful in his salesmanship on account of being a fast-talker and quick-witted and largely because of his genial nature and the fine figure he cut, a well-dressed young man with well-groomed dark hair and beard and sharp blue eyes. And it was perhaps this respectable demeanor that helped him to dupe and corrupt so many newspaper editors, for along his extensive travels, as a hobby or perhaps a compulsion, he took to writing and publishing brief fictions in area newspapers. This was the era when Joe Mulhatton developed his reputation as the Modern Munchausen, the Monarch of Mendacity, and the Liar Laureate of the World

A portrait of Joseph Mulhatton, via  the Museum of Hoaxes

A portrait of Joseph Mulhatton, via the Museum of Hoaxes

His hoaxes began with some similar themes: in 1875, he wrote that the bodies of Presidents Washington and Lincoln were to be exhumed and displayed at Philadelphia’s Centennial Exposition as a way to raise funds for finishing the Washington Monument, much to the outrage of some. Then a couple years later, in 1877, he presented a story about Washington’s body being disinterred due to some necessary repairs being made at Mount Vernon, at which time it was discovered that the corpse had petrified and resembled a statue. Additionally, in Texas, another story supposed to have been penned by Mulhatton related the discovery of two petrified bodies, those of a cowboy and an Indian, frozen forever in mortal combat. This fantastical discovery is even said to have drawn the interest of that great showman of oddities, P. T. Barnum

During his early years in Kentucky, he revisited the theme of his first hoax and in 1878 wrote again about outlaws in a series of letters to papers. Under the pseudonym “Orange Blossom,” he cast himself as a drummer local to the town of Big Clifty who had confronted some highway robbers on a bridge and cast them over into the water. Thereafter, in “Orange Blossom’s” letters, he referred to himself as the “Hero of Big Clifty” and detailed how he was lionized and celebrated throughout the region as the guest of honor at picnics and barbecues. Some years later, in 1883, this story seems to have gotten Mulhatton into quite a spot, as reports surfaced of his being kidnapped by bloodthirsty criminals who wanted to know if he was this “Orange Blossom” hero who claimed to best outlaws and intended to murder him for the fame it would bring. According to the tale as printed in newspapers, Mulhatton was being marched to a skiff on a river when, using knowledge of knots and escape artistry he had apparently learned while travelling with some famous showmen, he surreptitiously freed himself of the ropes tying his hands but did not let on that he was no longer bound. On the skiff, then, he made his move. He shouted, and when the outlaws sprang to their feet, he rocked the boat violently to send them falling overboard. They thrashed in the water, grasping at the sides of the boat, but Mulhatton took up an oar and methodically bludgeoned each of them, leaving a trail of blood in the river two miles long. A gripping yarn, certainly, but considering Mulhatton’s proclivity to spread tall tales, this too likely never happened.

In addition to preserved corpses and murderous outlaws, Mulhatton also appeared to be fascinated with the massive Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, and a number of articles about the discovery of gargantuan caves that rivaled that great cave in size, containing underground rivers and astonishing artifacts, have been attributed to him. He wrote of a cave in Pike County, Kentucky, containing virgin gold, with an underground river rippling over a bed of diamonds and the skeletons of cave-dwellers laid to rest in stone sarcophagi. So convincing was this article that it precipitated a rush for purchasing land in the area, and again P.T. Barnum is said to have shown up, looking to procure the remains of one of these cavemen. Then again, in 1878, Mulhatton wrote of the discovery of another massive cave, this one lacking the gold and jewels, but no less rich in artifacts and mummies, this time described as presenting “every appearance of the Egyptian mummies,” and therefore implying some kind of pre-Columbian trans-oceanic contact. Here again, a magnificent underground river was reported to flow—three of them, in fact—making it possible to admit a vessel, and according to the story, a local businessman had even begun to make plans to offer underground steamboat rides. In 1880, in Wyoming, he spun the tale of another grand cavern, this one housing a strange tribe of white natives with Egyptian-like customs who were kept from leaving their subterranean home by the local Sioux tribesmen on account of some superstitions that they came from beyond the vale. A reporter from Omaha was so intrigued by this story that he went to investigate and found himself taken prisoner by those selfsame Sioux, who during his week-long captivity soundly disabused him of the notion that the story was true. And again, in late 1881, a report appeared of a Leitchfield, Kentucky farmer who was accustomed to storing his milk and butter in some small caves nearby his farmstead. Finding them too small, he essayed to enlarge them through demolition only to uncover a far larger cavern beneath. This one too contained a grand underground river, teeming in this account with eyeless fish, and again, there were mummies of an Egyptian sort, but this time Mulhatton took it further, claiming that the farmer discovered an entire pyramid in the cave, an exact replica of the Great Pyramid at Giza, and inside, altars and decorations adorned with Masonic symbols. A final series of lies about caves purported that the famous Mammoth cave had been sold to the English, a report that greatly upset many but was promptly followed by the comforting update that the transaction had been cancelled upon the realization that the cavern would be very difficult to ship overseas.

A clipping from the Chatham  Record , January 12, 1882

A clipping from the Chatham Record, January 12, 1882

But preserved corpses and caverns were not the only recurring elements in newspaper hoaxes attributed to Joseph Mulhatton. Several of Mulhatton’s stories revolved around the unlikely and, frankly, unethical, use of animals for commercial ends.  In 1876, he placed ads in Kentucky presenting himself as the agent of a major furrier in New York who was seeking cats because of the sudden and unusual demand for their fur. On the promise of fetching top dollar, a great many area farmers choked the streets of Leitchfield on the appointed day, their wagons laden with boxes full of stray cats. Upon learning it was a hoax, Mulhatton’s fuming dupes released their cats, causing such a nuisance that the township was forced to implement a “shotgun quarantine,” a euphemism for open season on shooting cats. In a sort of reprisal, someone who knew which hardware firm Mulhatton worked for sent them a crate, that, when opened, spilled terrified felines out to fill the business with hissing and mewling. In another hoax, he claimed that a cotton planter had trained geese to weed his fields, each wearing a gourd full of water around its neck so that they could keep hydrated. And then, yet again, he claimed that a Flagstaff shepherd by the name of Green had trained kangaroos to tend his flock, an arrangement that had worked out so well, owing to the animal’s agility, that he had arranged for a great many more kangaroos to be sent to him for training as herders. This, of course, stirred the ire of cowboys and shepherds alike, for how dare he give their jobs to some hop-along Aussie beasts! 

Nor was this the sole controversy he caused over the use of animals as labor. In 1887, he wrote about a farmer who had imported South American monkeys to work in his hemp and cotton fields. Here Mulhatton seems to have been poking the hornets’ nest, going into detail about how compliant the monkeys were and contrasting that tractability with the hot-headed field laborers who had rioted over this usurpation of their livelihood. Of course, no such riots had ever transpired because there were no such monkey field hands, but this did not stop the story from travelling far and wide, until newspapers in England were lamenting America’s bizarre labor problems, suggesting that this did not bode well for the working classes.

And finally, another favorite motif in Mulhatton’s hoaxes was that of the meteorological or astronomical. He had an especial fondness for frightening newspaper readers with accounts of the impact of meteorites, or as they were sometimes then called, aerolites. In 1883, outside of William’s Ranch in Texas, a meteorite descended like a ball of fire and struck with the force of an earthquake, shattering every window in town, according to Mulhatton’s piece. It killed many head of cattle, destroyed the home of a Mexican herdsman and his family and buried the occupants themselves! Afterward, still steaming, one could ascertain its great size, for even though mostly buried in the earth, it still towered 70 feet above the surface and covered about an acre of land. In fact, so convincing was this account that many came to look for the meteor, even scientists from far away. According to Mulhatton, many of these seekers became lost in the brush and had to live off the land, while others, not finding the meteor and not wanting to return without a report of it, simply bought parcels of land and remained for the rest of their days, but one can take this further tale of Mulhatton’s for what it’s worth. And indeed, even if one were unaware of Mulhatton’s history of hoaxes, it would be impossible to credit the fact that he claimed to have witnessed another meteorite strike near the Ripsey mines in Arizona, in 1896, for unless the meteorites were attracted magnetically to him, the odds alone challenge the credibility. This time, he described nearby houses shaking like leaves, with cupboards jarred and the dishes within upset. Even larger than his previous meteorite, this one was supposed to have been 2 acres across, striking the ground with a sound like a cannon volley. Instead of cattle, it was sheep that this time suffered the brunt of the impact, but again, Mulhatton described the sufferings of a Mexican herder and his family whose dwelling was in the path of the meteor. One might safely, I’d say, attribute some racial bigotry to the man for the way he repeatedly hurled fictional meteors at Mexican families. 

A clipping of the Turner County  Herald , August 20, 1896.

A clipping of the Turner County Herald, August 20, 1896.

Perhaps the most incredible story involving Mulhatton actually turns out to be true. In 1884, he was nominated for President by his fellow travelling salesmen at a drummers’ convention in Louisville, Kentucky. He would be put forward as the candidate of the Business Men’s Reform Party, and the whole thing was considered something of a joke by all… all, that is, except Mulhatton, who insisted that with his army of travelling salesmen stumping for him, even if he couldn’t win the office, he’d be able to take a state or two and thereby force his way into politics. An interesting prospect, to be sure, the Liar Laureate goes to Washington, but it never really panned out and he went on with his itinerant lifestyle, sowing falsehoods everywhere he went.

During his travels, he wrote so many interesting hoaxes it’s impossible to parse them all, even if you could find each one of them, as there are many he is suspected of having written that may have been penned by other hoaxsters. Among those that are definitely attributed to him, he started a series of sensations similar to his cave stories about Native American mounds that held treasures and relics, one even containing the original tablets inscribed with the ten commandments! Elsewhere he claimed that an astronomer named Klein had discovered the Star of Bethlehem, and for further astronomical stories, he invented the character of Professor Birdwhistle, to whom he attributed a variety of astounding discoveries, such as a new moon that happened to be invisible, and most astonishingly, the detection of some unusual activity around Mars that revealed not only that Martians existed but also that they flew back and forth interacting with Earth and that they were engaged in some kind of war on their home world to fend off an invasion

The list goes on and on. In Iowa, well diggers struck subterranean waters so vast that a new river rivaling the Mississippi had sprung up. In Texas, a girl took a bunch of balloons from a peddler and promptly floated away over the sea, saved only by a sharpshooter who popped one balloon at a time until some rescuers in a boat could bring her in to safety. Elsewhere in Texas, a carriage full of skeletons was found, its occupants apparently having been killed years before by lightning. In the Mojave desert, an intact battleship was discovered, and in Wisconsin,  a lake monster that appeared to be half fish and half snake preyed upon livestock. If you believed his dispatches, he had more luck in discovering unusual natural phenomena than anyone who ever lived, finding a lake that dyed blond the hair of any who bathed in it, and finding not one but two extremely strange species of plant: a cactus with magnetic properties and a carnivorous tree, the arbor diaboll, that that could grasp and strangle even large creatures with its twisting limbs, pulling them in to devour them.

1887 image depicting another carnivorous plant from a similar hoax, via Wikimedia Commons

1887 image depicting another carnivorous plant from a similar hoax, via Wikimedia Commons

Later in life, in the last years of the 19th century, he settled in Arizona, buying and selling mining claims, and doubtless his tricky nature came to bear in this enterprise as well. In fact, there are reports of Mulhatton showing rocks with veins of gold ore in them as proof of a claim’s worth, when actually it seemed he had simply hammered brass nails into the stone to give it the appearance of containing gold. Then at the turn of the century, he was committed to an asylum for a time as insane, thinking he had killed a man and others were after him for revenge, and after that, rumors abounded that he had gone out west and died. Indeed, the fact that no one heard from him for some years seemed to indicate that he did pass into history, but eventually he turned up in Texas, exploding the rumors of his demise and putting all the newspaper on guard.

After that he seemed to disappear again, until eventually he turned up in California. In October of 1904, the San Francisco Call reported that Mulhatton sat in a jail cell in that city awaiting trial for stealing someone’s coat. In recent years, since his bout of insanity—which he attributed to being kicked in the head by a horse rather than to any alcoholic degeneracy—he had drifted westward, following circuses and relying on the charity of the Salvation Army. He presented himself as a phrenologist, one who can tell the content of a person’s character and even predict his or her behavior by feeling the lumps of the person’s head. Mulhatton appears to have been engaged in some similar bamboozling at the tavern where he was arrested, as he was said to have taken off his own coat to hold forth about a “mystic chart” and then put someone else’s coat on, which garment contained a bank roll in its pocket. Mulhatton is described as being wholly ignorant of the fact he committed a crime, but then he seems not to have been as sharp as he used to be, his wits likely dulled by whiskey as instead of the fast-talking genius he had become an incoherent mess. And no longer cutting the attractive figure he had previously been known for, he had gained weight and grown a red, bulbous nose. Such was his marked descent that the Call article went so far as to illustrate his decline with a drawing depicting his former self next to the sad, filthy version of himself that sat in the San Francisco jail. 

Illustration of Mulhatton both after his downfall and in his prime, from the San Francisco  Call

Illustration of Mulhatton both after his downfall and in his prime, from the San Francisco Call

This story went far and wide, and later that month, an expanded version of it in the Chicago Tribune included further statements from the interview with Mulhatton in which he admitted that whiskey was the culprit responsible for his downfall. Therefore, it seems not only the loss of his job as a hardware drummer and his apparent financial straits could be blamed on his slowly worsening alcoholism, but also his erratic behavior and apparent bouts of insanity, a fact that had been suspected ever since his asylum commitment. And apparently he hadn’t even liked the stuff at first, but felt he had been forced to imbibe whiskey because he was so well known and so well liked that he was expected to liven up every party. In a sense, then, it was his stories that were his ruin, for it was his entertaining yarns that thrust him into fame and high society, where the life of the party never finds the bottom of his glass.

After his arrest in San Francisco, he disappeared again, and again there were rumors that he had died, which were again debunked in 1908 when he showed back up in Arizona, claiming to have discovered a copper mine. Then in 1913, another report of his death emerged. While out about his mining operations, he reportedly attempted to cross the Gila River, which was swollen at the time, and lost his footing, whereupon he was swept away. Several witnesses claimed to have seen the drowning, recovered his body and buried him, but the world and all posterity learned of it through, of course, a newspaper report, so it may be understandable if some believe this to be one final hoax that Mulhatton may have played on the public before fading into obscurity. And the fact that our knowledge of the past relies in large part on such publications so frequently misled and riddled with hoaxes causes one to begin to doubt much of received history. When parts of what we know about the past may actually be nothing more than concoctions penned by a hoaxer, then certainly we suffer from historical blindness.

* A variation in the spelling of his name as Mulhattan is common, but I have chosen to spell it as Mulhatton because that is how his name appears in the majority of the contemporary newspaper sources I found. 

Blind Spot: Tutelary Spirits

In our previous installment, we explored the weird and convoluted legend of the White Lady, a ghost that appears as a warning or fell omen that a prince of the Hohenzollern dynasty will soon perish. In researching this pale harbinger, I came to understand how tied up it was in ancient mythology as well as more recent history, and indeed, this phantom of Germany was not alone the sole example of its kind. It appears that the idea of a guardian spirit that is tied to an individual or a family can be found in the ancient traditions of Greeks, Romans and Celts. These entities were called daemons in Ancient Greece, and it was argued that they were part and parcel with human existence, tied in some mysterious way with our bodies or our souls. Socrates spoke of this daemon as though it were some divine force guiding his actions, but since then, many thinkers have suggested that he actually referred to something more rational and down to earth. Hegel believed that Socrates referred to his will, and Jung believed that what Socrates mistook for a spiritual guide was actually the unconscious. But these are modern rationalizations, and one can find notions of a guardian spirit, a phantom presence that protects and warns, throughout history, from the Roman Genius, which was a guardian spirit or family spirit, to the spirit guides of Native Americans. It is this tradition of actual spectral entities, many of which are described as bound not only to an individual but to a certain family, that the White Lady of the Hohenzollerns seems to fit into. They are often said to appear before some calamity or tragedy, as a silent forewarning, and there seem to be many of them in Germany and beyond. These guardians have another name; they are called tutelary spirits.

The Hohenzollern harbinger appears to be only one among a great many White Ladies in popular lore everywhere. In the United Kingdom alone, many come to mind. The White Ladies of the castle of Skipsea in Yorkshire, of Samlesbury hall in Lancashire, of Blenkinsopp castle in Northumberland, of Bolling Hall near Bradford, and those of Woodhouselee and Avenel all have their legends, in which women of various stations in life suffered various abuses and lunacies and perished by neglect or violence. The difference, however, is that these don’t appear to be tutelary spirits, their appearances not necessarily presumed to foreshadow anything in particular. In Ireland, however, there is legend of an undoubtedly tutelary spirit called a “White Lady of Sorrow” who is known to warn certain families of an imminent death among their ranks. This, of course, is the legend of the Banshee. It is supposed that a Banshee might be the spirit of any person who had in life encountered the family and loved them or had good reason to harbor animosity toward them. Thus the Banshee, who portends a family member’s impending death with its song, may sing a comforting air or shriek with hellish glee at its enemies’ forthcoming suffering.

A friendly banshee depicted floating above ramparts.

A friendly banshee depicted floating above ramparts.

Nor is the Banshee the only singer among tutelary spirits. Scottish lore suggests that the chiefs of ancient houses had their own guardian spirits, Bodachs, who warned of a coming death, and one, the Bodach-an-Dun, or ghost of the hill, protector of the Shaw clan, is said to have sung in lamentation when the family lost its ancestral land

Sometimes these tutelary spirits, while still women like the Hohenzollern harbinger and the Banshee, differ noticeably in appearance, or more specifically in the color of their garments. Back in Germany, we find a legend out of Darmstadt of a Red Lady who appeared shortly before the unhappy death of Princess Alice, daughter of Queen Victoria. And in Bavaria, another is connected with the House of Wittelsbach, a family that has been haunted not only by spirits but by the specter of madness as well, with more than 20 members having gone insane within a hundred years. The spirit that haunts the Wittelsbachs in their ancestral castles at Fürstenried and Nymphenburg is also an ethereal woman, but rather than appearing as a young and fetching woman in white, she appears as an aging and haggard woman in a long black robe, with hair as white as a sheet. This Black Lady appeared prior to the death of King Maximilian II in 1864. According to the story, Maximilian’s wife, Marie of Prussia, beheld this fearful apparition standing behind her husband’s chair and looking at her with sorrow in her eyes before vanishing. Greatly frightened, she told the king what she had seen, and Maximilian, aware of the legend of the Black Lady, demanded of his guards what woman clothed in black they had allowed to enter the room, but of course his guards claimed not to have admitted anyone. Three days later, the king died suddenly, supposedly of a catastrophic attack of gastritis.

Maximilian’s son, then, is also said to have had his demise foretold by an appearance of this Black Lady. Ludwig is sometimes called the “Mad King,” because he was deposed when a psychiatrist declared him mad and therefore unfit to rule. In recent years, this evaluation has been brought into question, with some suggesting that Ludwig’s deposing had more to do with his debts and rumors of his homosexuality rather than any genuine insanity. Regardless, one night, a guard claimed to have seen the Black Lady floating at the opposite end of the King’s corridor. Chasing the spirit down to the courtyard, the guard demanded that she identify herself, but the figure made no reply, moving on through the moonlight. Nearing the chapel, the spirit turned to regard him. The guard then produced a firearm and discharged it, but it backfired, injuring him mortally. He had only time enough to tell the tale of his encounter to another alarmed sentry before dying. And true to the legend of the Black Lady’s appearance, the very next day, a great tragedy befell “Mad” King Ludwig while out walking the shore of Lake Starnberg. He had insisted on walking alone with the physician who had declared him unfit to rule. When they didn’t return, a search ensued, and they were both found dead in the lake, with the physician showing signs of having suffered some violence. It was thought that the Mad King had killed the doctor who’d betrayed him and then drowned himself, but no water was found in the King’s lungs, leaving the nature of Ludwig II’s death a mystery. But that tale may be better served if we save it for the topic of another episode…

Lake Starnberg, with portrait of "Mad" King Ludwig inset, via

Lake Starnberg, with portrait of "Mad" King Ludwig inset, via

As for these legends of tutelary spirits, it seems they do not always appear as spectral women. In France there persisted a tradition of a Little Red Man who showed himself at the Tuileries Palace just prior to some great calamity that would affect the ruling family of the land. At his first appearance, Marie Antoinette herself saw him in early August 1793; she and her attendants were lounging when they noticed him, a tiny man, clad in scarlet, with such an inhuman gaze that he seemed a goblin. Horrified, she and the others fled from the imp and told her mother what they’d seen. Within a few days, the bloody French Revolution had begun. This Little Red Man appeared again in 1814 to Napoleon’s son before Napoleon’s abdication and exile, but thereafter, many thought him a hoax because of one debunked sighting in 1815.  The Little Red Man appeared to some ladies and a chevalier while they sat dining. Coming out of the fireplace, he took a leg of mutton from the table and disappeared back up the chimney. This report certainly upset the royal family, who feared it portended some tragedy, and the King sent two chimney sweeps up the chimney to search out the scarlet imp, but neither of them returned! Only when he sent professional firefighter up the chimney was it discovered that some youths on another floor had cut a hole into the chimney in order to play the prank and had let the two chimney sweeps in on the joke. However, the legend of the Little Red Man did not die, for the creature was seen again in 1824 before Louis XVIII’s passing and again in 1871 before the fires of the Paris Commune

Indeed, it appears that legends of tutelary spirits associated with royal families do not always even take the form of a person. Legend has it that, before the transpiring of terrible events that touched the lives of those in the Habsburg dynasty of Austria, preternaturally large white birds were seen flying in the daylight. These unearthly creatures, called the Turnfalken, were said to fly by night, hidden in darkness, and only made daytime flights to forebode some ill omen for the Habsburgs with their strange and shrill cries. As with others of these tutelary spirits, the Turnfalken were seen in flight before numerous Habsburg deaths, some of them quite unexpected, such as that of Duchess Sophie Charlotte, who died in a fire at a Paris bazaar. One of the most notable Habsburg deaths presaged by the flight of the Turnfalken was the mysterious death of crown prince Rudolph in what is known as the Mayerling Tragedy. This incident, in which the crown prince and his mistress were found dead in the imperial hunting lodge, has remained a mystery, as none can be certain whether their deaths resulted from murder, suicide, or some combination thereof. But that, again, may be a story to explore in a future episode, so let us not dwell long on it, for the Turnfalken flew on through the years. Before the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, for example, there are reports that a flock of Turnfalken were seen wheeling around the skies above Vienna, shrieking. And before the death of Emperor Franz Joseph I two years later, it is said the Turnfalken circled the city in such great numbers that they sparked a general panic among the populace.

A depiction of the scene at the Mayerling Tragedy

A depiction of the scene at the Mayerling Tragedy

To the enlightened modern mind, these legends of tutelary spirits not only smack of superstition but also may seem backward in their outmoded notions of the superiority of nobility and royalty, that for some reason families of a certain breeding were special and warranted the protection of spiritual guardians. All too often, though, we look at the past through the lens of the present, judging our forebears according to our own worldview instead of meeting them on their own terms. If we fail to understand that the people of the past lived in a world of spirits and magic, then we are blinded to the true nature of their existence and perhaps to an entire facet of the human experience. Consider the words of Sir Walter Scott: “Unaided by revelation, it cannot be hoped that mere earthly reason should be able to form any rational or precise conjecture concerning the destination of the soul when parted from the body; but the conviction that such an indestructible essence exists…must infer the existence of many millions of spirits who have not been annihilated, though they have become invisible to mortals who still see, hear, and perceive, only by means of the imperfect organs of humanity.”